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Hyde Park, Woodlawn, South Shore

With Limited Internet Access, Elderly Chicagoans Struggle To Get Vaccinated — Even With ‘A Village’ Of Relatives Helping Them

Liz King, who lives in South Carolina, said her multi-state struggle to find a vaccination appointment for her elderly loved one left her concerned older Chicagoans are being "discounted, ignored and set aside in the whole vaccination shuffle."

A man is vaccinated at Rush Hospital.
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SOUTH SHORE — A South Carolina resident who rounded up community organizers, health care workers and loved ones in a quest to get her elderly family member in South Shore vaccinated is calling on government officials to play a more direct role in securing appointments for seniors and others without internet access.

Liz King’s family member is a South Shore resident who is older than 75, one of the priority groups under Phase 1B of Chicago’s vaccination phase. King requested her loved one remain anonymous.

Even though her family member is “independent and self-determining,” she doesn’t have an email or cell phone and needed help scouring the internet and making phone calls, King said.

In order to get her family member vaccinated, King oversaw a multi-state effort to call health care providers and research appointments until one was secured.

Many vaccination centers lacked availability and turned King’s team of family, friends and neighbors down for appointments, as Chicago’s demand for the vaccine has heavily outpaced supply to date.

Another setback arose after her South Shore pharmacy called about an available appointment, but the family member couldn’t make it due to the winter storm that dropped nearly 18 inches of snow on Chicago, King said.

Even as online platforms existed to find appointments, information on transportation, aftercare and other relevant aspects of the vaccine process created more complications, King said.

“There are details that are missing from so many websites that healthcare institutions and vaccine-serving places have out there,” King said.

The difficulties came even as a “team” of advocates scrounged online resources to help her, she said. She worries elderly Chicagoans without the same support systems around them may be “discounted, ignored and set aside in the whole vaccination shuffle.”

“I feel disappointment, I feel sad and I feel very anxious for everybody who’s still going through the same hoop-jumping process,” King said.

While King’s loved one has yet to be vaccinated, she does have an appointment scheduled through St. Bernard Hospital in Englewood. If that doesn’t work out, her loved one has an appointment available at Aunt Martha’s Health and Wellness, 5001 S. Michigan Ave., which was secured with the help of a local nurse.

“It really did take a village” to secure an appointment, King said. “Without her having her own email address, a number where text messages could get to her or any online savvy, she was getting left out of these loops.”

Acknowledging online approaches aren’t always the best way to reach seniors, the Chicago Department of Public Health has a team focusing on how to share vaccine information with older residents, commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said.

The team works with AARP, Meals on Wheels and other independent organizations — as well as city departments that serve older residents — to share information and help secure vaccination appointments, Arwady said.

City health officials have also asked hospitals and other health care providers to reach out their patients and arrange appointments, she said. Providers were instructed to start with patients the most at-risk of coronavirus and work their way down.

Awareness programs from the city, its partners and neighborhood groups can help spread useful information on how to get vaccinated, Neighborhood Network Alliance lead steward Val Free said.

But at this point, elderly Chicagoans don’t need an education — they need the vaccine, Free said.

The South Shore nonprofit assisted King and has heard similar stories since vaccines became available, Free said. Residents are struggling to find an appointment — if they even when they know where to look, she said.

Those stories are particularly concerning as coronavirus fatality rates in the neighborhood outpace citywide rates. One out of every 309 South Shore residents has died of coronavirus, compared to 1 in 562 across Chicago, according to city statistics.

Rather than delegating the task to hospitals or expecting elderly residents to work the phones all day, health and senior services agencies must assign staffers to engage with residents and arrange appointments, Free said.

“We’re in a state of emergency,” she said. “We need action items, we need someone to pick up the phone … call them and say, ‘have you been vaccinated, yes or no; if you have not, let me set up your appointment.'”

Free also stressed the importance of residents looking out for their older neighbors.

“If you know you live next door to an elder, find out if they need anything,” Free said. “Call and find out if you can help them, like setting up a driver to take them to their appointment. … We have elders right now who are in the house by themselves all the time.”

A full year into the pandemic and nearly three months after the first vaccine was issued in Chicago, “it’s time for everything that everyone can bring forward to make the vaccinations happen,” King said.

“Maybe more than education, we need the empowerment to get the thing done,” she said.

How can older Chicagoans get a vaccine?

Chicagoans age 65 and older are eligible for the vaccine right now along with frontline essential workers, as Chicago is in Phase 1B of its vaccination campaign. Priority is given to people 75 and older, and those 65 and older with underlying medical conditions.

The health department says you should first contact your primary care provider, or a health clinic or hospital where you’ve received care in the past. You can check their website or contact them for information on vaccinations and setting up an appointment if they’re vaccinating people.

Select pharmacies offer COVID-19 vaccinations to eligible people, though appointment slots fill up quick. You can try to make an appointment online at these pharmacies:

Vaccination locations in the Hyde Park, Woodlawn and South Shore area include:

Below is the citywide map of locations to get a vaccine:

Appointments at the United Center, which was recently announced as a mass vaccination site, will begin March 10. The first round of United Center vaccinations will be reserved for residents aged 65 and older. Residents will be able to make appointments online with Zocdoc.

For those without internet access, King said constant phone calls to nearby health care providers and networking with community members was key to finding an appointment for her family member.

Doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine are expected in Chicago early this week, which is expected to significantly boost Chicago’s vaccine campaign.

For updates on the city’s vaccination campaign, you can sign up with Chi COVID Coach or check the health department’s website for information.

You can also contact Block Club’s free coronavirus hotline with questions, or sign up for our free text alerts for breaking news.

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