Over the past few weeks, I have felt a sense of hope and optimism that had been missing over the past year. As I watch the percentages of vaccinated Americans climb (over 22% of adults, according to the CDC!), I can start to see the possibilities—maybe we’ll get our lives back. Maybe I can take my kids out to dinner or on a trip soon. Maybe schools will re-open nationwide. Maybe we can finally take a breath, knowing that our parents and grandparents are fully protected after a year of worry.
But we have to remember that despite the joy we feel as we get vaccinated and our loved ones do as well, there are many who still cannot get access to this vital medicine—and they are oftentimes the ones who need it the most.
A recent Twitter thread started by Craig Spencer, MD MPH, highlights this issue. The responses are heartbreaking and shed light on the fact that even though many of us are celebrating and sharing our “vaccine selfies,” the reality for the most vulnerable among us might be drastically different.
One group who is in desperate need of the vaccine, but is likely to struggle with making their appointment and getting to the vaccination site, is the elderly. Vaccine roll-out programs are relying on internet signups, which makes sense since it’s 2021. But there is a huge technological gap we must account for, as many seniors are not internet savvy and don’t have smartphones. Or if they do, they barely know their phones work.
So when vaccination sites open up time slots and post them online, this population—the population who needs the Covid vaccine the most—may not be able to grab one before they are already taken by those who are quicker and more knowledgeable with the internet and smartphones.
Also it’s not just the elderly who tend to be immobile. Adults of all ages who are chronically ill or disabled often cannot drive either, as this tweet highlights.
Furthermore, there are challenges beyond internet access and transportation. It’s also harder for those who don’t speak fluent English to navigate the process.
Vaccine accessibility also highlights income disparities in our country as well. A large percentage of Americans cannot afford to simply take hours out of their day to drive to a site and wait in line for a shot, and some may not even have reliable transportation to do so. Workers who don’t have cars, who rely on public transit to and from work, have no means to drive two hours west for a Covid-19 shot.
And on top of that, there is the large percentage of folks who struggle with a language barrier that prevents them from even knowing where to go.
One Twitter user even compares these vaccine rollouts to the Hunger Games, as the fastest and strongest seem to get to the goods first, and the analogy isn’t far off.
Another tweet addresses the reality that the elderly may have poor eyesight or cognitive impairment, making internet signups and transportation extra challenging. And yet another one says that where they live, in Appalachia, many don’t even have computers, putting them at a disadvantage when signups and information is all online.
With a large-scale vaccine rollout like this, there are two components: eligibility and accessibility. Cities and states across the country are opening up vaccine sites for all adults, meaning we’ve successfully expanded (or are in the process of expanding) eligibility, so that’s one box we can check. But that’s only one piece—we have to expand accessibility too.
Expecting people to drive long distances, wait in line for hours, or navigate confusing internet sites based on a first-come, first-serve basis isn’t working for those who need this vaccine the most.
So what can we do? One Twitter user shared that Stanford students created a site called VaxMyFam to assist non-English speakers in attaining vaccine-related information.
Another shared “At my university we are deputizing students to go into the retirement community by zoom and show them how to sign up for vaccines.” Someone else said that through their local synagogue, teens were volunteering to help seniors navigate the internet and sign up.
And this tweet, from LAWoman, explains the measures local organizations in the LA area are taking to get the most vulnerable populations vaccinated.
Other ideas were brainstormed throughout this Twitter thread that officials may want to consider, like providing mobile vaccination sites, similar to the Red Cross blood mobile.
Another user says this: “Needs to be handled federally. Covid vaccination info TV commercials that play every 3 minutes. Every grocery chain needs to put vaccination info pamphlets in every grocery bag. Billboards of where u can get vaccinated in your area in every town. In our faces all the time.”
This tweet echoes, with a similar sentiment: “Understanding what ‘accessibility’ means is vital. It involves the digital divide, the lack of transportation, sites not in neighborhoods, false and damaging information and language issues. We should be at churches, schools, parks, senior centers and shopping centers.”
These are all good ideas, and hopefully our local and national governments are listening. But as our country continues to improve its means of getting more shots into arms—improving accessibility, fixing bugs in the signup process, reaching out to seniors, the immunocompromised, and the disabled, and providing translators for non-English speakers—there is something we can all do today.
And that something is to help one another. Reach out to elderly neighbors and see if you can help them. Make sure your parents and grandparents are signed up and have transportation. Offer to drive and sit with someone you know who can’t drive or doesn’t have a car. Scroll the internet for someone who isn’t tech savvy or doesn’t have a smart phone. Get your teenagers or college kids involved as volunteers. Help someone you know who isn’t fluent in English find a translator, or translate for them if you are bilingual.
Let’s make sure our neighbors are vaccinated, not just ourselves.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this pandemic is that the human race’s future is dependent on us caring for one another. Without that, even if the government provides mobile vaccine trucks, a site on every corner, and a billion shots, there really isn’t much hope for us anyway.