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‘Vaccine hide and seek’: Idaho’s seniors struggle to get their coronavirus shots
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‘Vaccine hide and seek’: Idaho’s seniors struggle to get their coronavirus shots

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COVID vaccine

“Once you become eligible, then you start suddenly feeling the pressure of scheduling it (COVID-19 vaccination), and you realize how difficult it is,” said John Prusia, 78, in front of his Nampa home Wednesday. Prusia said he was bounced from one system to the next trying to schedule his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine after becoming eligible in the 65-and-older group.

BOISE — John Prusia, 78, of Nampa, who has a recurring blood cancer, asked his oncologist at Saint Alphonsus whether the health system would be reaching out to him to schedule an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccination.

The answer was no, he’d have to do it himself.

Prusia said he was surprised, but he sucked it up and did the legwork himself.

“So I went online to Saint Al’s website and tried to schedule, and that proved to be difficult because they have some times available, and you would select a time and by the time you’re done filling out this form … someone else had snatched the time,” Prusia said in a phone interview.

Persistence paid off, though, and on his third try, he was able to score an appointment for 6 p.m. Jan. 30.

Just hours before his appointment, though, he received a phone call to inform him that his appointment was canceled because there was not enough vaccine. He was told that he would receive an email later with a phone number to call where he was supposed to leave a message and someone would call him back, he said.

He was never contacted.

Meanwhile, his wife received a call from her provider, which was calling patients to see whether they wanted to get the vaccine. Same with his wife’s sister and brother-in-law, who received a phone call from their health care provider, Primary Health, setting up an appointment for shots.

“And meanwhile, I was just left on my own, to compete with everybody,” Prusia said. “It’s like a jungle out there.”

The rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has been anything but smooth. Idaho is not alone in struggling to get “shots in the arms” of its residents. Some states are doing better than others, but high demand for the vaccine is far outstripping limited supply, and the competition for vaccine has led to a dystopian scenario that seems to have “all the organization of a Black Friday sale, with whack-a-mole thrown in,” as one letter writer to the Idaho Statesman put it.

Through letters to the editor and individual interviews, the Idaho Statesman is documenting personal stories of Idahoans’ struggle with getting the vaccine. Many of the people we’ve talked to and heard from are 75 and older, part of the most vulnerable segment of the population susceptible to the coronavirus. Of Idaho’s 1,791 COVID-19-related deaths through Wednesday, 80% had occurred in people 70 or older (1,432).

In Prusia’s case, while he was trying to secure an appointment, Idaho had opened vaccine availability to everyone over 65, meaning Prusia was now competing with tens of thousands more people hoping to get a vaccine.

“The scary thing is that the state is talking about opening it up quickly to everybody,” Prusia said. “And then what happens to people, especially patients who haven’t been able to schedule? I go on the website frequently and they never have anything available. I was checking like hourly and I just stopped checking.”

Fortunately, Prusia contacted Terry Reilly Health Services and was able to secure an appointment for later this month to get a shot.

But the process has been frustrating.

“I just don’t know why the state opened it up to people all the way down to 65 (years old),” Prusia said. “It’s just that once you become eligible and then you see how Darwinian it is out there … it’s scary.”

Full-time job

Judy Helm, 77, of Boise, was so frustrated with the process of trying to find an open vaccine appointment, she wrote a letter to the editor, which ran in the Idaho Statesman on Feb. 4.

“I’ve just spent the better part of two days trying to find a COVID-19 vaccine appointment,” her letter read, in part. “Both hospitals, Albertsons pharmacy, Primary Health — nothing is available going into April. … I’ve emailed, I’ve called, nothing produces any viable result. … Are we supposed to sit at our computers all day, every day, trying, in vain, to sign up?”

She said in a phone interview this week that she spent “hours and hours” checking every website available and making phone calls. Meanwhile, a cousin in Colorado Springs was able to sign up for a vaccine through a centralized COVID-19 vaccine hotline and schedule an appointment at any medical center.

Helm said she wasn’t panicking, but she was getting extremely frustrated.

“It’s like they said, Feb. 1 people over 65 would be eligible, but then the sources (for the vaccine shots) were not prepared for that,” she said. “It’s like they weren’t told by whoever it was that said we’d be eligible. It’s like a, ‘duh’ kind of thing.”

Then, out of the blue, a man by the name of Michael called and offered to cancel his scheduled appointment and let her use it.

“He read my first letter and, I mean, honest to God, he didn’t have to do that,” Helm said. “I just wanted to thank him and put that out there because it certainly deserves some recognition. I mean how many people are going to do that?”

It turns out, though, that Michael was doing something health officials have been urging people not to do: He had double-booked, securing two appointments at two separate providers. It’s a practice that ironically contributes to the situation that Helm found herself in.

Nevertheless, Helm got her first shot Tuesday and is scheduled to go back for her second dose at the beginning of March.

COVID vaccine

“It’s been very, very frustrating,” said Judy Helm, 77, of Boise, after trying to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination appointment. “It’s been a full-time job.”

Survived two wars and COVID-19

Ronald Johnson, 85, of New Plymouth, is a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, so he knows a thing or two about tough times.

He admits that his battle with COVID-19, which put him in the hospital for two weeks at the beginning of the year, was no walk in the park, but he made it through alive.

“I beat Korea, I beat Vietnam, I’ll beat this, too,” he said in a phone interview.

Now that he’s out of the hospital, though, he’s still wiped out and confined to his home, without much ability to get around. Trying to figure out how to get the COVID-19 vaccine has been a frustrating challenge. He called Southwest District Health and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, asking how he could get on the list for a vaccine. He said they told him someone would call him back.

No one called him back.

“My biggest concern is, you know, I ain’t the only house-bound person in the state of Idaho,” Johnson said. “I called the Southwest health district, couldn’t get any answer from them about how to go about getting on a list or when we would even be able to get the shot and how we get it. And then, my daughter called Idaho Health and Welfare and got the same results — no results at all. So they don’t have a plan for the people who are home-bound. They don’t have a plan to come out to them and to give them the shots.”

Eventually, his daughter was able to get Johnson and his wife on a list for an upcoming vaccination clinic at Family Valley Health in New Plymouth. By then, Johnson said, he should be able to get up and about enough to make it to the clinic.

“I’m getting to where I can pretty well get by with my walker right now, but I know that there’s going to be a lot of people in Idaho not as fortunate as I am,” Johnson said.

‘Vaccine hide and seek’

Joan Rands, 72, of Boise, has been doing all the right things during the pandemic to keep herself and others safe. She has left her house only three times in the past year, and anyone who comes to see her wears a mask. She usually takes care of her grandchildren during the day, but she hasn’t been able to see them through the pandemic. Needless to say, she’s anxious to get the vaccine so she can return to a normal life.

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“I’m ready to leave my house,” she said in a phone interview Thursday.

Trying to score a vaccine appointment has become somewhat of a full-time job for Rands.

“Since Feb. 1, I have spent every morning from 6 a.m. until 10 a.m. continually refreshing seven-plus websites of health providers and major pharmacies offering to schedule vaccinations,” she wrote in a letter to the editor. “After 10 a.m. I slow my refreshing of sites to about two times an hour until midnight.”

What makes it worse is that she has a friend, who is younger than Rands, who was able to log onto the Saint Alphonsus website and secure an appointment on the first try.

“When I hear stuff like that, you know, my head explodes,” she said.

She did secure one appointment at one point, but by the time she gave them her phone number, got texted back, then filled out the information, the appointment was filled by someone else and she was told to start over, she said.

“I’m tired of playing vaccine hide and seek,” she wrote in her letter. “Idaho, your system is not working.”

Even though she lives in East Boise amid St. Luke’s facilities, Rands’ searches have covered a 200-mile radius, and she’s willing to go to Twin Falls if she has to.

Rands said she’s trying to be patient, but she is admittedly cranky.

“Perhaps if the Idaho COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee started putting more time into some out-of-the-box creative thinking about vaccine distribution and less time developing pretty-colored websites to show us all the vaccine we’re NOT getting, we could solve this problem,” Rands wrote in her letter. “(If this sounds harsh, I’m sorry, but because of COVID I’ve only left my house three times in the last year, and I’m a little cranky.)“

Rands emailed on Friday to let us know that she once again began her day at 6 a.m. (“as I have every day since Feb. 1”) trying to secure an appointment, but this time she was successful. She has an appointment next week in Caldwell.

‘Holding the rest of us hostage’

Jeanne Gatlin, 68, has adult-onset asthma and, for the past year of the pandemic, has remained isolated and carefully followed the health guidelines. She lives alone in Meridian and works remotely part time, captioning phone calls for the hearing impaired.

Through a friend, Gatlin found out she was eligible to get her vaccine doses. She signed up at Saint Alphonsus for an appointment for Feb. 3, the day after her birthday.

A few days after she made the appointment, those hopes were dashed. She received an email, which was forwarded to the Idaho Statesman, notifying her that the appointment was canceled.

When it happened, she said she wasn’t surprised.

“My self-talk was: ‘Well I kind of expected this. That was too good to be true,’ ” Gatlin said. “Because I didn’t have any faith at all that this state in any way would be organized for the rollout.”

As someone with a degree in public health education, Gatlin said she’s watched the political infighting between Gov. Brad Little and state legislators with frustration and disappointment. Legislators for the past few weeks have been trying to strip the governor of some of his emergency powers. She’s urged her representative to focus instead on what she believes people need most: the vaccine.

“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, now the governor and the Legislature are fighting over power? This is stupid,’ ” Gatlin said. “So I don’t have a lot of faith in our state government.”

Gatlin works 26 hours a week captioning other people’s personal phone calls. It’s a service provided under the Americans with Disabilities Act for people with hearing impairments. She eavesdrops and provides live captions.

For the past week, the major topic across the country has been access to COVID-19 vaccines, Gatlin said. But she personally doesn’t plan on spending her spare time “hunting down this vaccination.”

Gatlin said she’s been frustrated, feeling holed up in her home as someone who’s at high risk for COVID-19. She expects the state will continue to face the pandemic at least for the rest of the calendar year based on the number of people who don’t believe in the public health guidelines.

“You know what, your rights are well and good, and I get your side,” Gatlin said, “but you’re holding the rest of us hostage in our homes by not complying with public health, common sense and the CDC.”

‘Perpetual loop for hours’

Gladys Ashley, 75, of Eagle, wrote a letter to the editor expressing the frustration that she and other senior citizens have been feeling in trying to get vaccinated.

“I, along with thousands of other senior Idahoans, spent the last several days attempting to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination with Saint Al’s, St. Luke’s, Albertsons, Walgreens and Primary Health,” she wrote. “It was one of the most frustrating tasks I’ve undertaken in a while. You call: They send you to a website, the website either has glitches, or is so overwhelmed, you eventually end up in a perpetual loop for hours, with nothing being accomplished.”

In a follow-up phone call with the Statesman, she expressed something others have shared.

“I’m pretty computer literate, you know, I almost know what I’m doing,” she said. “What about the poor people who aren’t? Who’s taking care of them? Who’s making sure they get their shots, that they get scheduled? Because even if you’re computer literate, these websites are ridiculous.”

Ashley also said she has friends in other states, such as Oregon and Washington, who have received their shots.

“They’re like, ‘Yep, I got my second shot today,’ and I’m like, wait a minute, that’s impossible,” Ashley said. “And they’re younger than me. So it’s terribly frustrating.”

The good news, though, is that Ashley was able to get an appointment at a Fred Meyer in Boise this weekend. But the process has been exhausting, she said.

“I think they did a poor poor job,” she said. “Not only of getting the vaccines, but to make people go on these (websites) instead of contacting us — put people on a list or something — when they have vaccines.”

‘All the organization of a Black Friday sale’

Patrick Harren, 73, of McCall, came up with perhaps the most colorful description of the vaccine rollout. And he also offered a solution.

“From my perspective as a 73-year-old senior, the Idaho vaccine rollout has been a disaster,” he wrote. “It has all the organization of a Black Friday sale, with whack-a-mole thrown in. Hearsay, luck and computer skills (which many seniors lack) — not need — determines who gets a shot. Whoever set up MyChart at St. Luke’s must have read ‘Catch-22’ recently.

“The problem is the big hospitals are putting the burden on the individual to set up an appointment, rather than having an organized priority system set up by them, and distributing the vaccines accordingly. They have our information. Everyone could be assigned a tracking number, and you could go online to see where you stand to get a shot. This would be lots better than the dreaded recording saying no shots are available. At least you would know you’re in the system. At least you would have hope. Essential workers and nursing homes would have first priority, then seniors listed by age.

“When the next pandemic hits, having an efficient distribution system in place may be the difference between stemming the virus or having it spread out of control.”

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