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Communities Step Up to Help Seniors Register for COVID-19 Vaccines

older man in mask receiving a vaccine from woman

Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • While COVID-19 vaccines are allocated on a state level, actually distributing the shots is largely the responsibility of local communities.
  • Volunteer organizations have become crucial to helping those who are eligible but confused about getting vaccinated signed up for an appointment.

With many people still unclear about when they are eligible for their COVID-19 vaccines and how to sign up for an appointment when they are, clever ideas to connect arms with shots are popping up in local communities.  

While the country is nearly two months into administering vaccines, a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll conducted between January 11 and 18 among 1,563 adults found the majority of participants are confused about the process:

  • 60% said they did not have enough information about when people like them will be able to get the vaccine.
  • 55% said they didn’t have enough information about where they will be able to get the vaccine (60% Black and Latino respondents; 50% of White respondents).
  • Among adults 65 and over—a group that has higher priority for the vaccine—about 60% say they do not have enough information about when (58%) and where (59%) they will be able to get the vaccine.

“This is a process that the majority of Americans have never gone through before,” Ashley Kirzinger, PhD, an associate director for the public opinion and survey research team at KFF, tells Verywell. Kirzinger signed up her parents, who live 2,500 miles from her, for their vaccines. “The polling data shows us that there is an information gap on how to get [the vaccine]. Vulnerable populations especially are struggling to understand the process.” 

While vaccine allocation starts on the state level, distribution is at the local level, and that’s where many volunteer efforts are popping up. 

A Grassroots Approach

Upon hearing that many synagogue and community members were having difficulty signing up their local, elderly, and eligible parents for vaccinations, the community services committee and staff of the Kemp Mill Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland got to work earlier this week. Volunteers spread the word about volunteer signup on social media and via word of mouth. They created a spreadsheet to capture information needed for each eligible adult. Other volunteers then accessed numerous portals to find one open space per elder, often just an hour or two from when their eligibility was confirmed. 

By the week’s end, at least two dozen appointments were confirmed and completed, with more to come next week. 

Lead tech volunteer Shana Siesser helped her own parents schedule their vaccinations in Florida and helped her mother-in-law book a shot in Maryland. She knew which sites to try, what time to try them, and just how fast her fingers had to fly on her keyboard to land each person an appointment. "Vaccine priority should start with anyone with an AOL email address," Siesser tells Verywell.

Stamford Health, a health system in Stamford, Connecticut, took an in-person approach. The health system teamed up with the city of Stamford, the local NAACP chapter, and others to connect underrepresented groups, including at-risk seniors, with vaccines. The health system created a safe, in-person sign up program at the system’s hospital including translators and health professionals to answer questions. The first event was held last week, and the next will be on Monday, February 1.

College Students Help Bridge Technology Gap

The Edlavitch Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Washington, DC, which serves a diverse population in its neighborhood near the White House, partnered with college students at George Washington University to help seniors sign up for vaccine appointments. Dava Schub, the center’s director—who also signed up her parents for their shots—tells Verywell the JCC matched 400 seniors with 150 college students who can help navigate online vaccine registration, with numbers growing for both groups. 

“We wanted to launch with a smaller pilot group, but the demand came so quickly that we are regrouping to be able to serve those who have asked for help,” Schub says. In just the last week, the center has received requests from half a dozen other community organizations in other cities who want mimic the program.

“The single largest challenge is that the allocation of vaccines doesn’t match the population in DC,” Schub says. “We are not nearly able to meet the demand that we have.” 

The students, many of whom have been isolated and disconnected from friends this year, are energized by the project. Schub says she received a text from one student volunteer that said: “this is literally the best feeling ever.”

Seniors are sharing both their frustration and embarrassment at not being able to sign up on their own with their young helpers. “Students have told me, ‘I have faster fingers or know how to open two web portals at one time,’” Schub says.

Dava Schub, Edlavitch Jewish Community Center chief executive officer

The single largest challenge is that the allocation of vaccines doesn’t match the population in DC.

— Dava Schub, Edlavitch Jewish Community Center chief executive officer

Improvements in Vaccine Registration Are Still Essential

For now, community-generated efforts may be the only link for many people struggling to sign up for a vaccine. Federal funding for vaccine education efforts is largely tied up, together with other COVID-19 related needs, in the $1.9 billion package President Biden has proposed that Congress has yet to consider.

Rossi Hassad, PhD, a professor in the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Mercy College in New York, tells Verywell a few tactics need to become widely-adopted in order to improve the signup system:  

  • Simplify the system from a multistep-process to one that is less burdensome to navigate and complete
  • Modify the registration system so that questions can be answered during and following the registration process. Currently, for most sites, neither an email address nor a telephone number for the vaccination site is provided during or following the registration process. 
  • Expand registration via telephone with the option of getting assistance from a live person
  • Schedule live Zoom sessions to explain the registration process and provide guidance
  • Create a community volunteer corps that can provide support with registration for those with language, literacy, and technology barriers, including internet access

Not making the process easier could have dire consequences, said Heidi Larson, PhD, a professor of anthropology, risk and decision science at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine at a reporter’s briefing hosted by the Washington, DC based Alliance for Health Policy on Friday. “Without giving more people easier signup access, the concern is that many people will get frustrated and give up entirely,” she said.

What This Means For You

People unsure about whether or not they're eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine and unsure about how to get an appointment may want to get in touch with a local community center for help. For those with internet access, county website are a good place to start looking for information.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Kaiser Family Foundation. KFF COVID-19 vaccine monitor: January 2021. Updated January 22, 2021.