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Digital divide hindering many Arizona seniors from signing up for COVID-19 vaccines

APTOPIX Virus Outbreak Vaccine Rhode Island
Posted at 6:00 PM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-09 20:14:09-05

Despite the climbing numbers of vaccinations in Arizona, many seniors are still struggling to sign up for their first COVID-19 vaccines. Over the last month, ABC15 has received dozens of emails, social media messages, and phone calls from seniors who say they have been unsuccessful in signing up for the shot.

"I don't hear from any 75-year old's who tell me they've successfully been able to register for the shot. I do hear from grandchildren and parents who tell me they helped their mom or grandmother get the shot," said Dana Marie Kennedy, state director of AARP Arizona.

However, she acknowledged that there were many senior citizens who did not have a son, daughter, or relative to help them navigate the vaccine registration website and some who lacked the technological equipment or knowledge necessary to sign up.

Jose and Caroline Gonzales live in Sun City. The 74-year-old man has been struggling to get his 98-year-old wife signed up for the COVID-19 vaccine because they have no computer and no access to the internet. Gonzales said it was frustrating for him to see people getting ready to get their second doses of the vaccine when neither his wife nor he were able to get their first doses, despite their age.

Gonzales said he even drove to the State Farm Stadium and waited in line for a long time, before being turned away because he did not have an appointment. Gonzales said he had hoped they would be able to get the vaccines after letting staff know their ages, and their inability to sign up for the vaccinations.

"I just don't know what to do," said Gonzales.

State officials have set up a toll-free number to help people who are having difficulty with signing up, but Gonzales said he was told there were no appointments available.

AARP officials said they realize many seniors are frustrated and wondering how they, the people who are termed as "vulnerable" and "at-risk" will get the protection they need from COVID-19.

"It is a digital divide, unfortunately, we're seeing this with people not being able to navigate the technology. You need to be fast to be able to get one of those appointments," said Kennedy.

90-year-old Bob Holladay was also struggling to sign up for his first shot. He had a relative who could help him, as Holladay too had no idea how to navigate the state's website.

"I don't know anything about computers. I've never had one, never even seen one turned on until I came over here," said Holladay, speaking to us with his great-niece, Susan McRoberts next to him.

Holladay was eager to get a shot after losing his wife to COVID-19 last November.

"I don't want to come down with a cold, I would never recover," said Holladay.

McRoberts said she had tried for weeks to get Holladay signed up through the state's website.

"I've just had a heck of a time with the website, heck of a time. If I even don't get kicked off of it," said Holladay.

She too had tried to call the toll-free number listed on the state's website.

"I waited on hold for an hour and a half, went through the prompts to get to the senior line if you will. I'm sorry but Bob would not have been able to endure that. Ended up being a very nice person that I spoke to, very apologetic about the process, but it got us nowhere. So, I'm not sure what that serves other than a sympathetic ear," said McRoberts.

AARP officials say the state should have had better plans to reach out to at-risk and vulnerable seniors before rolling out the vaccine sign-ups which can only be done through a website described as slow and full of glitches.

Kennedy urged state officials to come up with a better plan.

"I think we should have a waitlist for people who want to get [the] vaccine but can't get an appointment or don't have the technology," said Kennedy.

She also urged state officials to give the county more vaccine supplies, as she said the counties were doing a much better job of reaching out to at-risk senior citizens by partnering with local agencies, but due to the shortage of vaccines, they were limited in their ability to vaccinate everyone who needed a vaccine.

"We should not be leaving our most vulnerable adults behind who have been hardest hit by the pandemic," said Kennedy. "We are absolutely leaving them behind," she added.

ABC15 has reached out to the state department of health and the Maricopa County Area Agency on Aging to find out what they plan to do to get help to seniors who are unable to sign up for the vaccine, and how they plan to reach out to at-risk seniors who have no access to computers or broadband. ABC15 is still waiting for a response.

AARP officials are urging the community to check in on elderly neighbors and relatives to see if they need help signing up for vaccines.

Passport Health near Loop 101 and Scottsdale Road is one option available this week for people 75 and older. As of Tuesday evening, vaccination appointments are available through Friday at the location. If you yourself are 75 or older, or you want to help a family member get vaccinated that is 75 or older, click here.