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Tampa Bay’s homebound seniors struggle to get coronavirus vaccinations

A lack of transportation proves a challenge for some seniors, as does a lack of internet access.
Matthew Hines, 78, and his wife Betty, 74 pose for a photograph at their home Friday, Jan. 29, 2021 in St. Petersburg. The Hines are concerned because they are unable to travel to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Matthew Hines, 78, and his wife Betty, 74 pose for a photograph at their home Friday, Jan. 29, 2021 in St. Petersburg. The Hines are concerned because they are unable to travel to get a COVID-19 vaccine. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jan. 31
Updated Jan. 31

ST. PETERSBURG — Matthew Hines needs to get the coronavirus vaccine. But post-tracheotomy, the 78-year-old can’t leave his home for long, because he relies on a suction machine to help him breathe.

His wife, Betty Hines, is 74 and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She leaves the house only to go to Publix or to pick up their medicines in the pharmacy drive-thru.

“There’s no way we can go out and get a shot,” Matthew Hines said. “I don’t want to get exposed, because I’m very, very susceptible to getting the disease.”

They’ve asked their oncologist and pulmonary doctors, but they’re not giving shots directly.

“I’m sure that sooner or later I’ll be able to get a vaccination, but who wants to wait and take a chance on it?” he asked.

Efforts have rolled out across Tampa Bay to vaccinate seniors in nursing homes, long-term care facilities and 55-plus communities. But many seniors who live independently are struggling to get vaccinated.

“The approach that we’re taking right now as a state is really leaving out a significant part of the 65-plus population,” said Jeff Johnson, Florida director for AARP, including “the people who don’t have great access to technology, and the people who don’t have transportation.”

And he added another group: “There are people, because of their vulnerability and because of disabilities, who can’t or shouldn’t be making their way to a mass vaccination site in order to get the shot.”

Seniors across the state are calling AARP with vaccine access concerns.

Unless a person is tuned into a social media network, it’s difficult to know when doses are available, Johnson said. And opening phone lines doesn’t help when agencies don’t have enough people to handle the call volume.

Johnson hasn’t heard of any statewide efforts to send out mobile vaccination units, but he has heard of seniors being vaccinated at home by healthcare providers.

Transportation is “a major barrier” for some seniors trying to get vaccinated, said Dr. David Moen, president of Prospero Health Partners, a company that specializes in caring for elderly people with chronic, advanced health conditions. The company operates in 20 states, including Florida.

Some of the company’s patients have received vaccinations, but the vast majority of homebound seniors have not, Moen said. Other than transportation, clients and their families also have asked: “Is it safe to take my loved one to a location to get vaccinated?”

“I ultimately think that some of these patients will be best served when the vaccine is available to be brought to them,” he said.

The vaccine refrigeration requirements make mobile vaccinations more difficult, Moen said. He expects more community distribution points to open and at-home vaccinations to become more of a possibility as the supply of vaccines increases and it becomes easier to transport.

The Area Agency on Aging Pasco-Pinellas partnered with other agencies, including Neighborly Care Network and Pasco Senior Services, to begin transporting clients to COVID-19 testing or vaccination sites this week after seniors started calling in with requests, said Ann Marie Winter, the agency’s executive director. The majority of her clients are homebound.

But even the new effort presents a challenge, she said, because providers can take only one person at a time due to social distancing protocols.

“We don’t have a good long-term solution on how we’re going to transport large numbers of homebound seniors to sites,” Winter said.

Vaccine registration portals also present a challenge because they are web-based, Moen said. About 80 percent of Prospero’s more than 9,000 clients across the country don’t have WiFi.

Winter’s agency doesn’t have the resources to help seniors who are not computer literate or who don’t have the ability to stay on the phone for hours making an appointment. But reaching these people is important, she said.

“This is a population that probably needs to get vaccinated the most, because they are frail,” Winter said. “They’re not able to get out of their homes generally, but they have people coming into the homes providing them with services like home care, like meals. So they’re coming into contact with people who might be at risk of infecting them with COVID.

“Those homebound, frail seniors need to be prioritized when doses become available.”

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