Los Angeles Times

Elders face a vaccine gantlet

Getting a shot is tougher for those who lack online skills, a cellphone, reliable car or the stamina to wait outside for hours

- BY HAYLEY SMITH

On a chilly January afternoon, 86year-old Selda Hollander sat on the grass next to a baseball field in Encino.

Though eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, Hollander hadn’t been able to navigate the appointmen­t system online or over the phone. She had heard about the unofficial standby line at the Balboa Sports Complex and decided to try her luck.

“I can’t figure out if it’s worth it,” she said, shivering slightly as she hugged her knees against the cold. “I’m waiting for the vaccine, but I can get sick because of the weather.”

Hollander is one of countless seniors who are struggling to navigate the region’s rocky rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. Those 65 and older have discovered that being eligible for the vaccine is one thing; actually receiving it is another.

The system set up by Los Angeles County seems, in many ways, to be a young person’s game: It can take social media skills, technology savvy, re

liable transporta­tion and even physical stamina to obtain one of the coveted shots. That leaves some of the county’s most vulnerable residents at a serious disadvanta­ge.

“Age is an equity factor, and it should be looked at that way,” said Fred Buzo, associate state director at AARP California, who has worked on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s community vaccine advisory committee since its inception. “Especially when it comes to this crisis.”

According to data from the California Department of Public Health, state residents over the age of 70 who contract COVID-19 are 24 times more likely to die of the virus than those who are younger.

And while Latino and Black communitie­s have been disproport­ionately affected by the pandemic, Buzo said, “age was really the only factor that cut across all demographi­cs.”

Yet L.A. seniors cited a number of barriers between themselves and the vaccine, technology among the most prominent. Many residents — and their children and grandchild­ren — report spending hours trying to secure appointmen­ts through the clunky online portal. Calls to the telephone appointmen­t line often go unanswered and unreturned.

“I had to sign my grandmothe­r up by logging in to the county website at 2 a.m. when traffic to the site was lower,” said Jamie Tijerina, who lives north of downtown. Tijerina said that she will be driving her grandmothe­r to her appointmen­t, but that she has been told she will need to present a QR code upon arrival, something that requires a cellphone or at least a decent printer.

Donna Spratt, an 82year-old Cerritos resident waiting in the vaccine line at East L.A.’s Lincoln Park, said she couldn’t figure out how to use the online system at all.

“Once you’re retired, you kind of lose contact with these things,” Spratt said.

She had to rely on her daughter for help securing an appointmen­t, and on her son to drive her the 20-some miles to get there.

But successful­ly securing an appointmen­t is only one part of the challenge. The five county-run mass vaccinatio­n sites are drivethrou­gh only, which means seniors who cannot drive have to rely on a friend or family member to access the sites, or risk the cost and exposure of using a ride-hail service or public transporta­tion.

During a Board of Supervisor­s meeting Tuesday, L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis said she has received calls from several seniors who couldn’t get to vaccine appointmen­ts because of transporta­tion limitation­s. She spoke with one 67year-old who said he took three buses to get to his appointmen­t at L.A. CountyUSC Medical Center.

Solis is directing the county to work out an agreement with municipal and regional transit operators to provide direct access to the vaccine sites.

But even at the sites, accessibil­ity is an issue. The city-run vaccinatio­n site at Dodger Stadium is also drive-through only, and numerous people have reported spending as long as four hours in line. Andrea Garcia, a spokeswoma­n for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said there are portable bathrooms at the site, but several seniors said they couldn’t find them.

“I inched along for two hours,” one Eagle Rock resident wrote on Facebook. “My appointmen­t was long past, and the call of nature forced me to give up. It has been impossible to get another appointmen­t.”

Another said she considered buying an adult diaper for the wait.

“This is a huge issue for women, and particular­ly women and men over a certain age,” she said, adding that it caused so much anxiety that she considered canceling her appointmen­t.

Walk-up sites, which include community clinics and sites run by the Los Angeles Fire Department, are not without pitfalls either. At the Lincoln Park and Crenshaw Christian Center clinics, it is not uncommon to see streams of cars circling around hunting for spaces. Some seniors said they had to park several blocks away and walk.

“It’s clownish,” 65-yearold Max Tolkoff said of the city’s rollout to seniors thus far. Tolkoff underwent several back surgeries in the last year and was using a rolling walker to get through the line at Lincoln Park one windy afternoon.

“Hopefully, they’ll smooth it out in a couple of weeks,” he said.

AARP’s Buzo said part of the reason the rollout has been so challengin­g for seniors is a lack of transparen­cy about supply levels and appointmen­t availabili­ty. He said there’s a strong need for some baseline of consistenc­y.

The “checkerboa­rd approach,” he said, has created substantia­l confusion, particular­ly when the state and county were at odds over which tiers and age groups were eligible for the shots. He was pleased that the state will be moving to an age-based rollout and said seniors’ concerns should continue to be factored in.

But the lack of clear informatio­n has created fertile ground for rumors, and social media has become as much a source of informatio­n as most official channels. On NextDoor and in neighborho­od Facebook groups, people swap tips for how to secure appointmen­ts.

One Bay Area resident named Michelle, who asked that her last name not be used, said the only way she was able to secure an appointmen­t for her parents in L.A. was by setting up a Twitter alert on her phone.

After scrambling, Michelle found them slots at a walk-up site in San Fernando, which she initially thought would be safer because it was outdoors.

“Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, even in L.A. it gets cold, sometimes it rains — what did I just set my parents up for?” she said. “When you start to think about all the logistics, it seems impractica­l.”

That seniors should be called upon to gather together in public, often for hours at a time, is counterint­uitive to all pandemic guidance thus far, she said.

Michelle tried calling the Public Health Department and the Fire Department to ask about conditions at the site. Her mother, 85, relies on a portable oxygen tank, and she wanted to know if the site would have an extra supply on hand in case she ran out while waiting. She never heard back.

Back at Balboa, Hollander contemplat­ed the meaning of the task at hand while she shivered in the grass.

“You feel, at my age, is it even worth living,” she said. Her husband died in July, and even though he didn’t have COVID-19, she wasn’t allowed to visit him in the hospital. Their dog died a week later from grief, she said.

“I can’t go out because of [the pandemic], I can’t do things,” she said. “Only eight people were allowed at my husband’s funeral.”

Despite the trying conditions in the line, Hollander said her faith was slowly restored throughout the day. A young man offered her his folding chair. Later, someone offered her a blanket.

Nearly five hours after arriving at the site, Hollander was pulled out of the brisk cold and into a red brick building. She sat down and rolled up her sleeve. She got her shot.

Getting the second one, she hoped, wouldn’t be so exhausting.

 ??  ?? THE WAIT for a vaccinatio­n can be a cold, miserable day in the park. Above, Thomas Zisfain, 70, covers up at Balboa Sports Complex.
THE WAIT for a vaccinatio­n can be a cold, miserable day in the park. Above, Thomas Zisfain, 70, covers up at Balboa Sports Complex.
 ?? Photograph­s by Mel Melcon Los Angeles Times ?? THE LINE to get a COVID-19 vaccinatio­n on Wednesday in Encino, where Debbie Chigaridas, 67, hugs her husband, Chris, 71. Getting an appointmen­t can be hard, and it doesn’t mean the wait in line won’t be long.
Photograph­s by Mel Melcon Los Angeles Times THE LINE to get a COVID-19 vaccinatio­n on Wednesday in Encino, where Debbie Chigaridas, 67, hugs her husband, Chris, 71. Getting an appointmen­t can be hard, and it doesn’t mean the wait in line won’t be long.
 ?? Photograph­s by Mel Melcon Los Angeles Times ?? DAVID ABERSON, 86, and wife Dori, 75, are in line for the vaccine. She was told to return for hers Thursday.
Photograph­s by Mel Melcon Los Angeles Times DAVID ABERSON, 86, and wife Dori, 75, are in line for the vaccine. She was told to return for hers Thursday.
 ??  ?? SELDA HOLLANDER, 86, seen at her home, waited outside nearly five hours to get a shot.
SELDA HOLLANDER, 86, seen at her home, waited outside nearly five hours to get a shot.

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