Poor Internet Access Among Barriers For Elderly St. Louisans Seeking COVID Vaccine

Poor Internet Access Among Barriers For Elderly St. Louisans Seeking COVID Vaccine

Jan 26, 2021
Originally published on January 27, 2021 4:30 pm

Updated at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 27, with information on health department hotlines in Madison County, St. Louis County and East St. Louis

A lack of vaccine hotlines in the St. Louis region is making it hard for senior citizens to access information about how to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

People who have poor computer skills or limited internet access can have a challenging time pre-registering for the vaccine. County health departments and local hospital systems are relying heavily on online forms. County health departments officials say they're swamped with hundreds of calls a day, and hospitals haven't set up vaccine hotlines yet.

“It's just a fact that the most efficient way to get any large numbers of people registered for anything is via the internet,” St. Louis County Health Department spokesperson Christopher Ave said. “But, we are intensely aware that not everyone has access to the internet.”

Ave said the St. Louis County Health Department is developing relationships with local service providers to reach people over 65, who are now eligible for the coronavirus vaccine in Missouri and Illinois. People over the age of 65 account for a majority of the COVID-19 deaths nationwide.

Community partnerships with churches and health clinics will be essential to reach elderly people who do not live in long-term care facilities, said Ollie Stewart, director of Southside Wellness Center in St. Louis.

The center primarily serves elderly Black residents, and Stewart, who has worked with senior citizens in south St. Louis since the 1970s, said many of them do not have reliable access to the internet or transportation. To advertise for a recent vaccination event, she posted fliers and made personal phone calls, instead of using online methods.

“We know better. I've been here too long,” she said. “I’m 88 myself, and I'm not going online.”

Related: Here’s Where To Pre-Register For The COVID-19 Vaccine In The St. Louis Area

St. Louis in general has a lack of internet infrastructure, especially among elderly communities and people who are low income, said Dr. Fred Echols, St. Louis Department of Health acting director.

“It's a huge issue because [people are] not only enrolling once, but individuals have to be able to receive the follow-up information and make it to their appointments to get their second doses,” he said.

The city’s health department is building a list of elderly people to call, Echols said.

Mercy and BJC Healthcare plan to open vaccine registration hotlines soon, but spokespeople for the hospital groups did not have start dates as of this Monday.

Health department officials suggest that people find family or friends to help them sign up.

“If they have a son, daughter, niece, grandson, somebody that can do it on their behalf, that's probably the quickest way they're gonna get notified right now,” said St. Clair County Health Department spokesperson Brenda Fedak.

St. Clair County recently hired a staff member to process senior vaccine registrations by phone and to call people without internet access. St. Louis County enlisted nine volunteers to contact seniors and nine staff members to answer coronavirus hotline calls.

Madison County Health Department plans to add a hotline next week.

Darlene Lancer retired from teaching this year to become her 89-year-old mom’s caregiver and said she easily signed her up on as many forms possible. She said she’s that concerned senior citizens like her mother will face barriers to getting the shot.

“She doesn't fit into the category like a lot of my friends whose parents live in senior communities [who] were getting their shots,” Lancer said.

People who do not have internet access or another person to sign them up should keep calling the phone line until someone answers, rather than leaving a voicemail, Ave said.

“Just call back, continue to call us,” he said. “Be diligent in getting on our list.”

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