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Seniors Finally Eligible for COVID-19 Vaccinations Face Barriers in Getting Their Shots


Reuven Blau and Claudia Irizarry Aponte, THE CITY

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This article was originally published

A mass vaccination site in the The Bronx on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021.
A mass vaccination site in the The Bronx on Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021. | Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

More than 560,000 New Yorkers 75 and older became eligible Monday for COVID-19 vaccinations — but  senior citizen advocates are concerned logistical hurdles could keep many from getting the shots.  

Some seniors are “terrified” — afraid or unable to leave their homes, unsure how they’ll get to vaccination centers and daunted by signing up online for an appointment, said Allison Nickerson, executive director of LiveOnNY. Elderly people living in low-income neighborhoods face additional barriers, advocates say.

“It’s a big challenge,” added Nickerson, whose nonprofit is an umbrella group for senior service providers.

Nonprofits that serve seniors are mobilizing staff to offer everything from computer assistance to make appointments online to transportation to the mass inoculation centers mounted by the de Blasio administration.

“We are in the initial stages and trying to set this up as quickly as possible,” said Avigail Adler, director of senior citizen transportation for the Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island

Seniors are not the only ones now eligible for the shots in New York. Among those included in the latest phase — known as “1B” — are firefighters, cops, teachers, public transportation workers, correction department staffers, and people living or working in homeless shelters. 

City officials plan to open at least one mass inoculation center that operates around the clock in each borough. Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters Monday that the city expects to have 160 sites in total running this week. 

The de Blasio administration has struggled to distribute its doses so far, with only about 40% received making it into people’s arms, according to the city’s COVID-19 tracker as of Monday night.

Can Call or Register Online

New Yorkers who want the vaccine must register by phone (1-833-697-4829 or 1-877-829-4692) or via one of three websites. The varying online options — one created by the state, another by the city, and the third by the city’s public hospital system — have contributed to some of the early confusion, according to senior advocates. 

Each system has its own separate list of up to 50 questions. On Monday morning, a form the state required to verify eligibility did not have an option for people who qualified for under the 1B category. That was later updated. 

Some nonprofit organizations are walking seniors through the online process, one at a time.

“It’s a very complex system,” said Anderson Torres, president of RAIN Total Care, which operates 13 senior centers in The Bronx and Manhattan. 

“I think that having my staff reach out to our members makes a world of a difference for the better,” he said, noting that some of his family members who tried to sign up by themselves had trouble doing so. 

Healthcare workers at an inoculation center in Queens, Jan. 11, 2021.

Another barrier is getting seniors to the vaccine distribution centers.

In Coney Island, the JCC has seven 18-passenger vehicles and contracts with multiple car services to drive seniors around Brooklyn. 

“We are in touch with our vendors to see if we can access additional cars,” Adler said. “It’s a little challenging because we are currently using some of our drivers to deliver meals.” 

During a normal year, the organization provides approximately 130,000 rides to more than 6,000 clients.  “They really have a difficult time taking public transportation,” Adler said. “A lot of them are old and frail. They call us to even do their local shopping.” 

‘Terrible Disparities’

Some experts worry the vaccine rollout will further exacerbate the disparate toll taken on low-income communities and predominantly minority neighborhoods. 

Government officials have done a poor job “communicating” the vaccine distribution setup with people in those areas, said Ruth Finkelstein, executive director of Hunter College Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging

“Unfortunately, when that happens you’ve got some people who elbow their way to the front of every line and other people who don’t have the resources to get into that line,” she said. 

“Despite the good intentions to not recreate the terrible disparities that happened during COVID we are in real danger of just that in vaccine distribution,” she added. 

Not everyone is happy with the order of distribution. 

The city Department of Health & Mental Hygiene’s description of New Yorkers eligible for the round of vaccinations that started Monday states that all “front-line essential workers who cannot physically distance and have frequent in-person contact with others” are eligible.

The state’s list includes some, but not all of the essential workers who have been hailed as heroes since the pandemic struck New York in March.

That means as of Monday ferry workers, “public-facing grocery workers” and “in-person college teachers” could get the vaccine — but doormen, taxi and for-hire vehicle drivers, delivery workers, pharmacy clerks and public housing custodial staff still could not.

‘Significant Health and Safety Risks’

On Monday, state Senator Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) urged state officials to include taxi and for-hire vehicle drivers and delivery workers — including food delivery workers — in the state’s latest round of inoculation.

“If New York State moves from phase 1A to phase 1B of the vaccination plan as currently written, this critical group of New Yorkers will continue to bear significant health and safety risks, both for themselves and the millions of New Yorkers they interact with on a daily basis,” Ramos wrote in a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker.

A healthcare worker in Queens gives a protective shot in the arm, Jan. 11, 2021.

The vaccine can’t come fast enough for seniors Ella Shneyderman, 80, and her husband, Yakov Kalizhsky, 83. 

The Brooklyn couple, who survived the Holocaust, spent the last nine months inside their Midwood apartment avoiding any gatherings. 

But they recently became sick with COVID-19 a few days after one of their health aides contracted the virus. Kalizhsky battled a fever and cough for days, while Shneyderman endured a milder case. Both are now on the mend. 

“It was terrible,” Shneyderman told THE CITY last week. “I hope to wait for the vaccine.” 

Disclosure: Reuven Blau’s wife works at Jewish Community Council of Greater Coney Island.

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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