KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) -- People who need the COVID-19 vaccine the most, elderly and immunocompromised individuals, may face the biggest struggle to access it.

Older adults in Kansas and Missouri are spending hours a day online looking for a vaccine appointment

Mike Fahrlander, 65, said trying to get an appointment is like trying to get hot concert tickets.

“That feeds into the narrative or perception that it’s who you know or who you’re connected with and I think that’s a lot of the anxiety out there is that I’m just not in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Fahrlander said he doesn’t mind waiting his turn, he just wants information about when that will be.

“Having an expectation would be nice, even if it’s weeks or months,” he said.

He signed up for every list available. The only agency to confirm it received his information was the University of Kansas Health System. In order to review that information, he had to download an app and have his daughter help him navigate it.

Fahrlander considers himself tech-savvy, as does 72-year-old Janet in Olathe. Janet has requested to be identified only by her first name for privacy.

“I’ve been trying to be patient, but it’s my turn,” she said.

Janet said she spends two to three hours online per day and makes phone calls to pharmacies and public health organizations to try to find available appointments for her and her husband, who is a teacher in Missouri. She said her frustration has been mounting for weeks.

“I just keep thinking, ‘this is the week I’ll get the shot and then I’ll get to see my grandkids,’ but then I don’t and I don’t go anywhere,” she said.

Not all seniors like Fahrlander and Janet have a computer or a reliable internet connection.

The Mid-America Regional Council conducted a series of surveys. It estimates of the older adults who qualify and are interested in receiving the vaccine, digital access is a barrier for 28,000 seniors in the Kanas City region of Missouri.

The Director of Aging and Adult Services for MARC, James Stowe, said many of those individuals have family or friends who can help navigate the online registries, but most of them are calling for help.

“One of the most common questions is, ‘where am I at in the list? I know I've signed up, I’ve been waiting for so long and no word has come to me yet,’” Stowe said. “We really have no insight into the registries themselves, we just help people become enrolled. And so, our message to those individuals is be patient, there will be a vaccine coming for you.”

MARC has a team of about 40 people working in a call center, helping older adults access COVID-19 vaccine appointments and information. The staff do not have influence to place anyone higher on a list or move appointment times sooner.

“If the registry is only internet-based, we’re able to take their information, enter it into the registry on their behalf. If they cannot receive an email, we’ll go ahead and receive and email about appointment options and give them a call and help them to complete the vaccination appointment,” Stowe said.

Currently, the organization is only working with state and county health entities. The team will likely help coordinate vaccinations with privately-owned pharmacies later this year.

Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services has given MARC funding to help seniors with transportation to and from vaccination events.

MARC is generating a list of home-bound individuals who would like the vaccine to give to regional planning agencies.  In-home healthcare specialists have indicated to the state they may administer doses on home visits once more vaccines are available.

The Kansas City, Missouri Public Health Department is working to eliminate the digital divide. It set up part of the 311 system to connect those with questions about the vaccine with health officials.

“As we move forward with our plans both for testing and for vaccination, we needed to make sure we were responding to that need,” said KCMO Public Health deputy director Frank Thompson.

People in the call center can complete online registration forms for the callers. It is open to any resident of Jackson and Clay Counties.

City employees and community partners both stressed the importance of setting up a call center. Thompson said the department recognizes online-only registries are a problem not only for seniors without a computer, but for anyone without a reliable internet connection.

“That’s exactly why we put [the call center] in place, for those individuals to be able to get the assistance they need,” he said.

Thompson said anyone who was frustrated with the process early on should try again. He is currently trying to fill clinics with people over the age of 65. The department scheduled nearly 2,000 appointments with the call center, as of late February.

After initial interest survey results came back, the health officials noted it would be weeks or months before some people could book an appointment

“We recognize there’s a need to reach out to people to give them updates on a periodic basis. That’s easy to do for people who have email address. But then we realized, what about those people on the list who’s only contact is a phone number?” Thompson said.

The department uses the help of student interns to reach those individuals. The students return calls for status updates and help schedule appointments as they become available.

Community advocates, like Lana McKinney, say public health organizations should use more unconventional resources.

“Leverage the infrastructure you have. Leverage the places where people already have phone banks set up. How do you think they do telethons, voting, etc. All of those things? Leverage that,” she said.

McKinney is a doctoral candidate for geriatric public policy with the University of Nebraska-Omaha. She’s known as the “neighborhood gerontologist” for her help with older adults.

She said public health agencies may consider asking people who are older than 65 and tech-savvy to communicate with peers who are less comfortable using technology. She said peer-to-peer interaction can take away some of the anxiety around getting the vaccine.

McKinney commends the work of project managers and department leaders trying to plan how to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people.

“If you can’t be creative, reach out to someone who can. You may be limited on capacity, but we appreciate what you’re doing. [The solution] may not all fit in the boxes you check typically, so think outside of them,” she said.

Hospital Systems

    • Current patients may schedule a vaccine appointment through the Patient Portal
    • Scheduling hotline: 913-782-2224
    • Nonpatients can receive email notifications about Olathe Health’s vaccine phases and availability
  • St. Luke’s Hospital
    • Currently vaccinating patients ages 65 and older.Eligible patients will receive a message via the mySaintLuke’s patient portal
    • Hospital staff will reach out directly to patients without computer or internet access.
  • University of Kansas Health System
    • Currently inviting randomized groups of those eligible to receive the vaccine to schedule appointments via MyChart and by phone.
    • Invitations are based on the number of doses available.
    • People who have been patients within the past three years are considered “current patients” and are already on the wait list. Staff will notify individuals when they are invited to schedule an appointment.
    • People who are not a patient with the University of Kansas Health System may complete the COVID-19 Vaccine Information form and will receive updates as vaccination appointments become available.
    • Information by phone: 913-588-1227

County Health Departments

Pharmacies

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