Crashing websites, no available appointments and waning supply. Senior adults in Scarsdale, who have already been dealing with unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, are now dealing with the technological barriers and a complicated sign-up process for vaccination appointments.
Some older adults are turning to family or friends for help navigating the vast array of vaccination websites, and some who were lucky enough to secure a vaccination appointment face hurdles getting to their assigned facility.
As of Jan. 20, New York had administered approximately 907,000 first dose vaccinations, about 84% of doses available. About 29,200 doses were administered in southern Westchester, with 99% of the county’s supply used up.
Initially, vaccinations were given only to medical personnel in group 1a. As of Jan. 8, New Yorkers age 75 and up were eligible in the next group 1b. Four days later the eligible age was dropped to 65. On Wednesday, Jan. 13, Westchester County Center in White Plains opened as a state-run mass vaccination center, one of 20 being set up around the state.
With more than 7 million people now eligible to receive the vaccine, supplies are running low as the federal government is only providing New York approximately 200,000 to 300,000 vaccine doses per week.
On Jan. 18 Gov. Andrew Cuomo sent a letter to Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, asking whether New York State could buy doses directly from the pharmaceutical company. The next day, New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said New York City would need to close vaccination sites and cancel appointments starting Thursday if doses weren’t resupplied from the federal government.
On Jan. 20, Cuomo said the state was averaging 65,000 doses a day. At that rate, he said, doses would be exhausted in two or three days.
“What’s clear now is we’re going to be going from week to week,” said Cuomo. “You’ll be seeing a constant pattern of basically running out, waiting for the next week’s allocation and then starting up again. We’re trying to smooth it out, but we’re also trying to get it out as fast as possible.”
When the New York State vaccination website opened to group 1b, it became overloaded. Appointments were difficult to get and made even more difficult when the pool of eligibility was expanded to adults 65 and older.
Juliette Silk, a junior at Scarsdale High School, saw firsthand the troubles with the entire vaccination sign-up process. She struggled to get her grandmother an appointment and was blown away by how challenging the process was even for a tech-savvy member of Generation Z.
The website had to be constantly reloaded, she said, and users had to scroll repeatedly to find an available appointment. Sometimes a pop-up would say too many people were on the server, and the website would crash.
“I kind of wondered, what if someone doesn’t have a family member to help them with this or doesn’t have a mobile phone [or] computer? It was hard to do on my phone, so I had to use my computer and a lot of elderly people don’t have computers,” she said.
Noticing the challenge seniors faced, Silk, her mother and some close friends decided to volunteer to help them sign up for vaccinations. Since Jan. 18, Silk and her team of Scarsdale High School students (known as Vax Helpers) have received about 50 calls from seniors looking to schedule vaccination appointments. So far, she’s been able to successfully schedule 25 appointments.
Organizing and contacting all the people who are interested in getting vaccinations has been difficult for Vax Helpers. Silk has set up a spreadsheet of seniors who call her on her personal cellphone. Initially, she stayed on the line with callers while trying to schedule their appointments in real time. But with appointment slots dwindling, she has pivoted to take down their information and then call them back when an appointment opens up.
“Before I was spending three hours a day, but it’s cooled down with appointments not being available,” she said. “I still have the tabs open on my computer and I always look when I have a chance.”
Since many seniors don’t own a printer, Silk has also been mailing or dropping off people’s confirmation forms, which must be brought to the vaccination appointment.
New Rochelle residents Elaine and Wally Goodman contacted Silk after they saw Vax Helpers advertised in an email sent by the Mid-Westchester JCC.
The couple, who are both in their 80s, were having trouble navigating the process and Silk was able to secure an appointment for them.
“She was one of the most delightful young women, so incredibly helpful, and she even dropped information off for us at our house,” said Elaine Goodman. “[It] was so beyond kind and lovely.”
Meryl Newman-Cedar, a physician who has lived in Scarsdale since 1993, was having trouble trying to help a friend in her 70s sign up for a vaccination appointment.
The appointment website was shutting down constantly and Newman-Cedar said the sign-up process was “a daunting task.”
After reading Silk’s letter to the editor in the Inquirer on Friday, Jan. 15, she and her friend began reaching out to Vax Helpers to see if they could help schedule an appointment.
Though Vax Helpers took down all the necessary sign-up information, her friend, who lives in White Plains, was eventually able to schedule her own appointment.
“She scheduled her own, but they were more than willing to help and couldn’t have been nicer about it,” said Meryl Newman-Cedar.
Janet Birnbaum, 75, struggled on her computer to figure out how she could get a vaccine. She called her local pharmacy and was put on a waiting list. Then she visited New York’s vaccine website and wasn’t making a lot of progress.
“I just played around with it. I didn’t know what I was doing,” said Birnbaum, who has lived in Edgemont since 1976.
She eventually found out about Vax Helpers and called for help scheduling a vaccine appointment. After multiple canceled appointments due to dwindling supply, Vax Helpers was eventually able to secure Birnbaum with an appointment in April at the Westchester County Center.
What’s irked Birnbaum most is the limited areas in Westchester where she can get a vaccine. She said the county should consider using Playland or the dozens of closed movie theaters around the county to administer vaccines.
“There’s a million places that they can open up in Westchester to give the vaccine,” she said.
As one who doesn’t feel comfortable driving at night, if it’s raining or to places she isn’t familiar with, Birnbaum said she would take a taxi to her appointment if necessary.
In Scarsdale, the Advisory Council on Scarsdale Senior Citizens and Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Services (SFCS) Aging in Place Initiative have not seen a need to set up information hubs for seniors to assist with getting vaccination appointments.
“There’s a lot of chatter on social media about people having to help their parents sign up and how cumbersome the paperwork is and all of that is very true,” said Aging in Place coordinator Maryellen Saenger. “I’m wondering if a lot of us are helping our neighbors and our friends and our relatives and maybe that’s why I’m not getting too many calls about it.”
“It’s nice to see this grassroots effort by the students,” she said, referring to Vax Helpers, and she said Aging in Place would be willing to help publicize their effort.
Saenger also said she had been looking at ways to coordinate a service to take seniors to vaccination appointments safely, but “nothing concrete” had materialized as of yet and she said she hadn’t received calls from seniors looking for transportation assistance.
Saenger said she recently attended a Zoom call with all the Westchester centers for the aged, in which everyone echoed the same sentiment: people were confused by the vaccination process and the rollout was disorganized. At the beginning of the pandemic, SFCS started the “Adopt a Senior” program, which connected volunteers with a Scarsdale senior to help them with basic necessities. She said her office would connect any seniors who need assistance with the vaccination process to those volunteers.
“No doubt, it is a cumbersome process. It’s confusing. People are saying it’s a mess,” she said. “Clearly, if it’s difficult for us to do this, it’s difficult for the elderly.”
For the elderly who are unable to get transportation, Saenger recommended contacting RideConnect or WestFair Rides, two Westchester not-for-profits that coordinate rides for seniors. Seniors who are members of the Scarsdale Recreation Department can also receive a voucher for a free one-way ride with Scarsdale’s Central Taxi.
Trustee Lena Crandall, who serves as liaison to the village’s Advisory Council on Senior Citizens, said she also hadn’t personally heard from any seniors who needed help with the vaccination process.
“My assumption is that our senior citizens are quite smart, and that they’re also on guard and my hope is that they’re relying on close friends and family if they’re finding it difficult to maneuver themselves,” said Crandall, adding that she has called for a meeting of the council to discuss how Scarsdale’s senior citizens are coping with the pandemic, but nothing was scheduled yet.
Carol Silverman, chair of the village’s Advisory Council on Senior Citizens, said she was finding it difficult to schedule a vaccine for herself and recommended that the elderly be persistent when using the websites.
Due to confidentiality concerns, Silverman said the village was also not able to provide Vax Helpers with a list of residents 65 and older. The last time the council had a voluntary sign-up list was in 2012 for a senior club directory, but the list is outdated.
On Jan. 19, Westchester County Executive George Latimer instructed the county’s Department of Senior Programs and Services to use all available resources to help the county’s senior population navigate the vaccine appointment process.
“Our information and assistance line is live and ready to be a valuable resource for our seniors,” said DSPS Commissioner Mae Carpenter. “The vaccination process can seem overwhelming, but rest assured we are here to help.”
While the county moves ahead with its effort to assist seniors, Silk at Vax Helpers is still taking calls and managing a major information and technological crisis. The first person she helped received a first dose vaccination on Jan. 18.
“When I signed up my first couple of people, it was such a rewarding feeling,” said Silk. “I didn’t understand the magnitude of what I was doing.”
Need help getting a vaccination appointment?
Vax Helpers — Juliette Silk — 914-574-7863
Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Service — Maryellen Saenger — 914-723-3281
Westchester Department of Seniors Programs & Services — 914-813-6300
Need a ride to your appointment?
RideConnect — 914-242-7433 — rideconnectwestchester.org
WestFair Rides — 914-764-3533 — westfairrides.org