'You just gave me life': Groups help seniors get COVID-19 vaccine appointments

Corrections & Clarifications: This article has been updated since it was first published. Phoenix Mutual Aid does not offer vaccine appointment help, a spokesperson says.

Though Arizona is now more than two months into its coronavirus vaccine rollout, many in the groups currently being prioritized are finding it difficult to access the potentially life-saving shot.

Maricopa County is currently in Phase 1B of its rollout program. Individuals currently being prioritized for vaccination include health care and EMS workers, long-term care facility residents and staff, educators, child care workers, law enforcement and adults age 65 and older. 

For many in those groups, the issue doesn't lie in a lack of available doses but rather the barriers they face in accessing them. They might not have access to a computer to use the online registration portals, for example, or might not be able to drive to a location offering the vaccine.

Seniors across the state have expressed their frustrations to The Arizona Republic. Some said they got to the final step of the registration process and were logged out. By the time they logged in again, every appointment was taken. Some don't have loved ones nearby to help. Others tried calling vaccination sites but couldn't get through.

Arizona began its first COVID-19 vaccinations for Phase 1A the week of Dec. 14, and as of Friday, the Arizona Department of Health Services reported that 1,027,816 people had received at least one dose of the vaccine in Arizona. Out of those, 353,796 people had been fully vaccinated.

The state released 21,000 new February appointments at Phoenix Municipal Stadium earlier in the month; all were gone within 40 minutes. The health department said it was aware of the issues and was working to implement website improvements. 

“We understand how frustrating our website was," ADHS Director Dr. Cara Christ said. "We have been working on enhancing it and making it better based on customer feedback and our own personal frustrating experience with the website.”

In the meantime, several local organizations and grassroots groups have used their resources to help those struggling to access the vaccine. Though most are smaller-scale operations with limited budgets and resources and can't guarantee that they can get someone to a vaccine appointment, they are doing what they can to serve those who reach out to them for help.

Learn more: Where can I get a COVID-19 vaccination in Arizona?

Arizona Department of Health Services: Hotline for those needing extra help in English or Spanish

The Arizona Department of Health Services said people without computer access or who need extra help registering for an appointment can call 1-844-542-8201 to be connected with an operator.

Both English and Spanish-speaking operators are available, according to ADHS spokesperson Holly Poynter.

The online ADHS vaccine registration system also allows someone to book an appointment on behalf of someone else, which Poynter said could help when it comes to those who can't easily access or use the online system.

ADHS is developing targeted messaging for seniors as part of their vaccine communication efforts, Poynter said.

How to get help: The ADHS hotline is 1-844-542-8201, and both English and Spanish-speaking operators are available. Maricopa County also has a Spanish-language website for vaccine information, which can be found at https://www.maricopa.gov/5643/Vacuna-Contra-COVID-19.

Smile on Seniors of Arizona: Helping seniors get signed up, find transportation 

Levi Levertov founded Smile on Seniors of Arizona in November 2009 in an effort to build community and enhance the lives of Jewish seniors in Arizona.

In 2021, that means helping those seniors access a potentially life-saving coronavirus vaccine.

Levertov said his organization noticed accessibility issues with the vaccine "from the very beginning" and that they've been helping seniors navigate the website over the phone, have collected information and signed them up online themselves, and have offered rides through a partnership with Envoy America.

They initially had one volunteer dedicated to helping with vaccine accessibility issues, but Levertov said by February, that number increased to five once they understood how large the issue was.

As of February 9, Levertov said the group had helped more than 100 seniors get vaccine appointments.

"This is really their hope, this is the daylight that's so close to them after a year of darkness — it was like it was there, and they couldn't touch it," he said.

Though Levertov acknowledged the issues with existing websites for vaccine information and sign ups, he said he tries to keep a "very positive mindset."

"I'm not going into, 'could the state have had more thought put into that?' The answer, of course, is yes, but I also understand the great task," he said. "If you look at what's going on, they've done a great job and it's all about perfecting it."

"I don't look at it as, 'man, they're a failure.' They're a huge success. There were hiccups and there still are hiccups they'll hopefully fix."

The organization's website said its volunteers have been serving seniors throughout the pandemic, which has included making regular phone calls to check in on them and running critical errands.

Levertov said they've had a "tremendous" response from the seniors they've helped.

"For many people, it's like, 'you just gave me life,'" he said.

Though their organization is relatively small and they don't have resources and staff to provide a switchboard to help the general public navigate the vaccine process, Levertov said "we can definitely try and help" those who need it.

How to get help: Smile on Seniors of Arizona can be reached at 602-492-7670 or info@sosaz.org.

Fresh Start: Helping older Arizonans get appointments

Liz Agboola, CEO of Fresh Start, a Phoenix-based healthcare staffing agency, decided to shift the organization's efforts to help seniors with the vaccination process in mid-January. Since then, Agboola said they have helped more than 30 people register for appointments. 

In addition, Fresh Start also offers a free ride service to transport seniors to get their shots. 

"Registration is only half the battle with this," she said. "Sure, some will be able to get an appointment on their own, but if what you don't have a car? What if the only slot left was in the middle of the night and you can't do that safely? That's where we can step in."

Agboola acknowledged even seniors who have reliable internet access may feel overwhelmed by the constant influx of differing information. While some areas in Arizona have drugstores and pharmacies with vaccine doses, others only have the choice of driving to a state-run site in Glendale or Phoenix.

Agboola said she hopes the system at Fresh Start can help clear the noise.

"It ultimately becomes a trickle-down effect of confusion that's causing our seniors a lot of unnecessary heartache," she said. "No one is giving up on this easily, it's just that once you've tried and failed at so many options, you see no point. We are trying to avoid that." 

As of Feb. 16, Fresh Start is only making appointments through the Arizona Department of Health Services website. 

"It's really simple and truthfully, this effort is just an extension of what our organization has been doing all along," she said. "It feels amazing. I love serving our community in whatever way we can." 

How to get help: To receive help from Fresh Start, Agboola said seniors or their family members only need to fill out a short questionnaire on the agency's website with contact information, whether or not they'll need a ride and what phase of the vaccination rollout you qualify for. Once the form has been filled out and submitted, a volunteer with Fresh Start will call you to acquire more information to help set up an appointment.

Valley of the Sun YMCA: Offering free rides to seniors, asking for volunteers and donations

Valley of the Sun YMCA has been operating a small-scale ride program to help seniors get around for years, but the program has expanded to provide rides to anyone needing transport to a COVID-19 vaccine appointment.

Jenna Cooper, the organization's emergency response coordinator, said they've seen a "real uptick" in ride requests since the vaccine rollout began.

Through the support of a single private donor and a partnership with Uber Health, which has agreed to not take any profit from the rides, Cooper said they were quickly able to expand the capacity of the existing program by hundreds, if not thousands of rides.

They currently have about 200 volunteers around Maricopa County offering rides.

When a caller requests a ride, Cooper said they will note their pickup and drop-off areas and first try to connect them with a volunteer available at that date and time, but that if none are available, they will book an Uber ride for them instead.

"We think we can serve as many people that need rides as possible, while at the same time recruiting for more volunteers," Cooper said, adding that any financial support from the public would also help ensure they can continue the program as long as it's needed.

She said they do background checks, including criminal and driving records, and provide training for road safety and COVID-19 health protocols for volunteers, but that the process is typically "very quick and easy."

Volunteers can choose when, how often and for how long they volunteer, with Cooper saying some volunteers help once a month while others help multiple times per week.

Tuesday marked the first day in which the program was expanded to all of Maricopa County, and Cooper said that by 3:30 p.m. they'd already received about 200 calls from people seeking more information or to schedule a ride.

She said the seniors who they've helped thus far "want independence" and "love the idea" of being able to schedule an appointment and ride without relying on family or friends for help.

Cooper said through this program, the Valley of the Sun YMCA is putting its mission into practice.

"I think so many times, this part of who we are gets lost in the hullaballoo of basketball and swimming lessons and childcare, but I think this is really what it's all about."

How to get help or volunteer: Those interested in getting further information about volunteering with Valley of the Sun YMCA, or those interested in signing up for a ride can reach the organization's Outreach Programs for Ahwatukee Seniors program at 602-212-6088 or opas@vosymca.org.

Know of another organization aiming to help people with accessibility issues get COVID-19 vaccination appointments? Reach the reporter at bfrank@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-8529, or follow her on Twitter @brieannafrank. Reach reporter Jamie Landers at jamie.landers@arizonarepublic.com. Follow her on Twitter @jamielandersx

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