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'We Are Generally The Last' — Older Mainers Fear Being Forgotten As Demand For Vaccine Skyrockets

Steve Parsons
Pool via AP
In this Monday, Jan. 4, 2021 file photo, 82-year-old Brian Pinker receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Sam Foster at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, England.

Health care providers have been flooded with phone calls Mainers 70 and older desperately seeking an appointment to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The amount of doses the state has received so far is well below what’s needed to vaccinate all of the 193,000 people in this group, who are expressing frustration — and, sometimes, elation.

The COVID-19 vaccine is 74-year-old Robyn Rosser’s ticket to some sense of normalcy. Rosser has a serious lung disease and rarely leaves her Lewiston apartment for fear of becoming exposed to the new coronavirus.

She says she’s tried to get an appointment by calling several of the dozens of clinics listed on Maine’s COVID-19 vaccination website.

“Normally you get a recording,” Rosser says, informing her they’re fully booked.

Even at locations that allow people to preregister for the vaccine and get a phone call back when appointments become available, the voice on the other end of the phone is often recorded.

But Rosser says waiting for a return phone call that could be weeks or months away is unnerving.

“It’s just chasing down one rabbit hole after another. It’s very frustrating I’ve never talked to a human being yet,” she says.

For John and Lorraine Mitchell, who are in their 70s and live in Calais, the search has also been frustrating. John says they haven’t been able to find a clinic in the area that’s even booking appointments.

“We’re used to it,” John says, as Lorraine laughs. “Aren’t we? Because almost in every endeavor undertaken by the state or anybody else, we are generally the last.”

The Mitchells say they’re trying to follow Maine CDC guidance as they wait for an opening in their local area. But practicing patience can be hard as they witness others in their age group who are able to get appointments.

“Our experience was wonderful and quite seamless,” says Stanley Eller, 74, of Brunswick.

Eller says he and his wife go to a doctor’s practice that’s part of Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick. Shortly after Maine opened up vaccines to people 70 and older, Eller says he got an email from his doctor with a link to sign up for a dose. He and his wife were able to get appointments within three days.

Getting the vaccine was a huge relief, but Eller says it’s difficult to watch their friends continue a desperate search.

“They then ask the question of, how did we get it? And we have no idea as to why we were lucky that day,” he says.

“There’s this real feeling that folks who are tied to health systems are immediately first in line,” says Lori Parham of AARP Maine.

Whether that’s true or not, Parham says many people in rural areas feel they’re at the end of the line. And she says people are also frustrated by the various options for signing up for the vaccine.

In some instances, providers contact patients directly. In others, they have to make the phone call themselves to a clinic, or go online.

“If they had the information, if they knew how the process was going to work and if it didn’t seem to be different depending on where you live, that could provide some relief to older people,” Parham says.

The confusion about when and how to sign up for the vaccine has prompted all five of Maine’s Area Agencies on Aging to provide assistance to older adults. The executive director of the Aroostook agency, Joy Barresi Saucier says her office gets 10-20 calls an hour. She’s pulled together a team of staff and volunteers who enroll people directly if they request help.

“First of all, they’re pleased to talk to someone and just tell their story to us and tell us what they need. But they’re really excited when they get the call back that says, ‘We’ve got an appointment for you,’” she says.

But the reality is that many people who are currently eligible for the vaccine are still going to have to wait weeks for a shot because Maine doesn’t have enough supply. So far, the state has received about 155,000 first doses. That’s less than half the roughly 330,000 people who are included in phases 1A and 1B of the vaccine rollout.

Dr. Nirav Shah of the Maine CDC has urged older adults to be patient as the state grapples with low supply. But 75-year-old Anne Welles of Southwest Harbor says that’s increasingly hard to do.

“I guess the more friends tell me they have appointments, kind of undoes me, makes me think I’m falling through the cracks and they maybe aren’t going to get to me,” she says.

Welles says she has spent hours clicking links trying to get appointments for her and her husband, to no avail. And now that there are variants of COVID-19 making their way around the U.S., getting vaccinated soon feels even more urgent.

“But it seems like it’s up to me. So if I don’t get through what happens to me?” she says.

The Maine CDC is planning to launch a central, statewide registration system, and Parham of AARP Maine says that will help. But it may be several weeks before that’s available.

In the meantime, she urges health care providers to over-communicate with older Mainers about how they might access the vaccine.

Correction: Aroostook Area Agency on Aging has been receiving gets 10-20 calls an hour, not a day.