Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Contact 90.5 WESA with a story idea or news tip:

Many Elderly Pennsylvanians Still Trying To Get The COVID Vaccine

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
A patient receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic on the North Shore.

Some elderly Pennsylvanians are still struggling to get the COVID-19 vaccine, even though they have been eligible since January. The Pennsylvania Department of Aging estimates that around 700,000 seniors are still not vaccinated.

It's unclear how many of those seniors want the vaccine. But for many older people, access to technology and transportation, along with mobility issues, are significant barriers to obtaining health care. Standing in line at a mass-vaccination site, for example, may often not be possible.

“I’ve got several phone calls [from seniors] that had gone to a certain location, but because the line was so long, they missed their appointment,” said registered nurse Elaine Jenkins, who sits on Pennsylvania’s Council on Aging.  “80- and 90-year-olds, we have people in their 100s,” said Jenkins. “Their eyesight isn’t good. Their dexterity isn’t good.”

While elderly people in long-term care facilities have mostly had the opportunity to receive the vaccine, reaching out to seniors who don't live in such housing can be more challenging, especially in poorer communities. 

To vaccinate seniors in federally subsidized apartment complexes, Jenkins is working with Bethany Community Ministries to organize clinics at Pittsburgh-area facilities located in predominately Black and brown communities.

But organizing a clinic is labor- and time-intensive. Planning starts weeks in advance, and includes going door-to-door to confirm information, like name and data of birth. Pre-clinic follow-up calls are made.

On the day of the clinics, providers are needed to administer the vaccines and to monitor residents for complications after they receive their shots. Also, someone must supervise vaccine doses to make sure they remain at a proper temperature.

Jenkins is frustrated that more resources are not being directed to senior high-rises, which are home to people who are among the most medically and financially vulnerable.

“Social isolation has been real for these people,” said Jenkins. “They haven't been out socially for a year ” since the pandemic broke out last spring.

Allegheny County says it is in the process of phoning every senior who receives home-based services, such as delivered meals or help with bathing or dressing, to determine how many still need vaccinations. The county reports that as of late last week, some 571 seniors have said they wanted to be vaccinated but have been unable to do so.

The county has "been in conversation with multiple vaccine providers … encouraging them to develop vaccine opportunities especially for seniors, including drive-up clinic opportunities, vaccine clinics for caregivers of seniors and also brainstorming on efforts to reach the homebound senior population,” said Elaine Plunkett, of the county’s Office of Equity and Engagement.

What’s clear is that for the most vulnerable people to get vaccinated, and for the region to reach herd immunity, vaccines must be easy to access. But while a mass or drive-through vaccination clinic might be an effective method to quickly administer a large number of vaccine doses, this system does not serve everyone.

For this reason, the county's health department and medical providers like Allegheny Health Network have partnered with Jenkins, as she and her colleagues have built relationships with senior high-rise communities.

Long before the COVID-19 vaccine became available, that work included providing flu shots. "We also provided a lunch for the residents, as well as provided health education,” said Jenkins. “We also had a survey that we did at that time, because we knew the vaccine would become available at some point. We wanted to see the interest of the residents.”

Once work is complete with senior high-rises, Jenkins said her attention will turn to distributing the vaccine in barber shops that serve Black communities. To accomplish this work and finish clinics at high rises, she’s looking for a larger medical provider to allot her enough vaccine for approximately 1,500 people. Monetary support would also be welcomed.

“We pray all the time," she said.

Sarah Boden:

Start your morning with today’s news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania. Sign up for WESA’s Inbox Edition newsletter.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.