The town of Greenburgh has launched a COVID vaccine “angels” program to help residents, 65 and older, who do not have access to computers, or may lack the computer or smartphone skills needed to navigate the New York State vaccine registration process.
In order to receive the vaccine, Greenburgh seniors must sign up with the state’s vaccine registration website, am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health, to confirm their eligibility and to schedule an appointment at a designated location, such as the Westchester County Center. But the site poses challenges for many elderly, said Dr. Carol Allen, a retired physician who lives in Hartsdale and is chairing the “angels” initiative.
“A lot of them don’t have computers and they don’t know how to negotiate websites like this,” said Allen.
For example, among several fields to be completed on the site is one asking whether the registrant would prefer to be contacted by email or text. But as Allen points out, “If you don’t have email, you’re not going to be able to get your confirmation.” In addition, she said, the process requires registrants to print out their appointment ticket, “but you can’t do that if you don’t have a printer.”
Allen also maintains that some of the print on the site is small. “People with vision impairments are going to have difficulties.”
With digital communications a potential hurdle, the alternative boils down to reaching approximately 2,500 Greenburgh seniors by telephone. Volunteers are compiling a data spreadsheet from lists of residents who participate in senior citizen activities. Older residents may also be identified through the town’s real estate tax assessor’s database.
“The town knows who the senior property owners are, if they’ve applied for the STAR (New York State School Tax Relief) benefit,” said Allen.
The volunteers are also planning to gather names of seniors participating in Meals-on-Wheels and will distribute flyers to area churches to spread the word on how congregants can get assistance.
Allen said volunteers are preparing for possible resistance from seniors wary of being contacted, “out of the blue.” The group is working on a script highlighting what they will say and will provide the name of a town official whom seniors can call with any questions or to confirm that the volunteer angels are working on behalf of the town. They will also suggest that seniors can have a family member talk with the volunteers, “so they know they’re not being scammed,” said Allen.
Even with registration assistance, tremendous obstacles currently exist in the metro New York area, including system crashes, a lack of responsiveness and system-generated canceled appointments.
Asked whether the town could facilitate real-time logistics for vaccine appointments, Allen said she is asking volunteers for transportation help and is also considering whether the town’s vehicles, used to transport seniors to programs, could be used.
“Those programs aren’t running right now. Why not repurpose them?” The issue, she concedes, is the amount of time individuals must spend at locations to get the vaccines.
Allen said the state currently is not booking appointments in Westchester or in metro New York because time slots are filled up through the end of April and because of a lack of vaccine supply.
The state gets only 250,000 to 300,000 doses a week, Allan said, and right now there are 7.2 million people eligible to receive them. “The sites are only making appointments for known doses of vaccine, so there are no waiting lists.”
“A person has to check on a regular basis. The site says, ‘no appointments available.’ And if there’s one available, it’s going to be pushed out to April.”
The question is, will we be getting a larger allotment of doses each week, because currently we’re only getting 300,000. If we double that to 600,000, then appointments would start to open up.”
In a coronavirus update on Jan. 18, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the pace of vaccines is rapidly accelerating. “If the federal government can increase supply, we are ready to inoculate New Yorkers and scale up distribution.”
So far, Greenburgh has enlisted more than 130 vaccine angels, but may need more once they start making phone calls to seniors.
“We are going to work on developing a structure,” said Town Supervisor Paul Feiner. “Many residents really want to help their neighbors.”