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 a 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 said 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 said, 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 said 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 said.
For John and Lorraine Mitchell, who are in their 70s and live in Calais, the search has also been frustrating. John said they haven’t been able to find a clinic in the area that’s even booking appointments.
“We’re used to it,” he said, as Lorraine laughed. “Aren’t we? Because almost in every endeavor undertaken by the state or anybody else, we are generally the last.”
The Mitchells said they are trying to follow Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidance as they wait for an opening in their area. But patience can be hard as they witness others in their age group get appointments.
“Our experience was wonderful and quite seamless,” said Stanley Eller, 74, of Brunswick.
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Eller said 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 said 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 said 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 said.
“There’s this real feeling that folks who are tied to health systems are immediately first in line,” said Lori Parham of AARP Maine.
Whether that’s true, Parham said many people in rural areas feel they’re at the end of the line. And she said 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 said.
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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, said 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 said.
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.
Maine CDC Director Nirav Shah has urged older adults to be patient as the state grapples with low supply. But 75-year-old Anne Welles of Southwest Harbor said 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 said.
Welles said 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 said.
The Maine CDC is planning to launch a central, statewide registration system, and Parham of AARP Maine said that will help. But it may be several weeks before that’s available.
In the meantime, she urged health care providers to overcommunicate with older Mainers about how they might access the vaccine.
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.