14% of Florida seniors are unvaccinated. These groups are helping.

Unvaccinated older adults have varied reasons for waiting.
Robert Eberhart, 85, in his Pinellas Park home on Aug. 11.
Robert Eberhart, 85, in his Pinellas Park home on Aug. 11. [ Hannah Critchfield ]
Published Aug. 24, 2021|Updated Aug. 24, 2021

Robert Eberhart can’t remember what health agency he called, or why they didn’t come by Greenbriar Village, his mobile home community in Pinellas Park — all he knows is that his 81-year-old wife wasn’t able to get vaccinated in the first eight months after the shots became available.

“I got both of mine about a month ago at the VA,” Eberhart, 85, said. “Cause you hear it on the TV all the time — if you don’t get vaccinated, you’re subject to get it. But no one wanted to come out to the house.”

Gail Eberhart is confined to bed. Until two weeks ago, she was among the 14 percent of older adults in Florida who have yet to receive a shot of the coronavirus vaccine.

Unvaccinated people of any age group are not a monolith — their reasons are varied and complex — and older adults are no exception.

But as the delta variant spreads in Florida, elder care organizations and groups are doubling down on efforts to ensure every senior in Tampa Bay has the option to get a shot.

Florida’s vaccination rate mirrors a national trend — about 90 percent of older adults in the United States have received at least one dose. While a milestone, this means a significant proportion of the senior population is still at high risk contracting — and experiencing severe illness from — the virus.

There are a variety of reasons that a person who is 65 or older might not have received their shot, according to Stacie Bolen, director of outreach at the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas, Inc.

“Maybe a senior is homebound, or in a rural part of the county and doesn’t know where to go,” she said. “One lady that we talked to last week said she had been really preoccupied with the death of her husband — the vaccine isn’t always the first thing you’re thinking about when you’re going through a major trauma, so she was really appreciative of the reminder.”

The agency recently launched an initiative to follow-up with seniors who expressed interest in getting vaccinated earlier this year — if they haven’t been able to, the agency will coordinate transportation to vaccine sites.

To reach homebound elders, they’re partnering with DeliveRxd Pharmacy to make sure someone can inoculate them at their residence.

Eberhart heard about the organization’s campaign, which is funded by a grant from the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, at his local Veterans Affairs office.

“They gave me this telephone number,” he said. “So I called it, and they had someone come down to give her a shot. It was that simple. In a couple weeks they’ll come back and she’ll get another one.”

Vaccine hesitancy is often a key factor for some older adults who have not been vaccinated.

Starting this week, the Senior Connection Center, another area aging agency, is beginning a door-to-door campaign to reach older adults who may feel unsure about the safety of the shots.

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The organization, which serves Hillsborough, Polk, Manatee, Highlands and Hardee counties, is canvassing in zip codes where the overall vaccination rate is low and the senior population high. The team will provide education on the availability the vaccine and combat misinformation.

“Even before the delta variant we wanted to make sure people who wanted the vaccine could get it, but it has made it more imperative for us to get that information out there,” said Patricia Henderson, outreach manager and community liaison at the center. “Our goal is not to convince or coerce anyone, but to provide accurate information about the COVID vaccine — and if somebody does want to receive the vaccine but has not been able to, then we can facilitate getting that appointment scheduled.”

Canvassers will also refer interested homebound adults to the state Elder Helpline, which can coordinate a vaccination appointment at home.

“That is one reason we’re going door to door — we feel like a lot of people may not know that they can get the vaccine at their home,” Henderson said.