As the coronavirus vaccine rollout continues to stutter along in Virginia, local service organizations and community groups are reaching out to Rappahannock County seniors to provide information and assistance with vaccine registration.
Much of that outreach is aimed at tackling a problem exposed by the state’s online registrations systems: A digital divide among older residents who lack computer skills or internet connections.
Social and economic divides that inhibit people from getting to vaccine sites can add to the challenges.
In Virginia, the main way to register for a vaccination is through an online survey managed by each health district, the Rappahannock-Rapidan Health District (RRHD) in the case of Rappahannock County. People without computer access can call the health district’s helpline to get assistance filling out the survey, but calls aren’t always answered due to high demand.
And while the online form isn’t complicated, one reader told the Rappahannock News that she received no email confirmation after submitting it, leaving her to wonder if and when she would be notified that she had an appointment. April Achter, RRHD’s population health coordinator, said sometimes confirmation emails go to people’s spam folders.
Tiger Valley resident Sandra Antony, 74, helped her sister get an appointment at Valley Health, which was releasing a limited number of slots each weekday at noon. But she said the process felt like a race to fill out registration forms before available openings filled up.
“This requires patience, a fast finger in filling out the forms and the realization that you may be back in the same place the next day trying again,” she said.
Amid these challenges, however, one thing Rappahannock does have are people willing to help.
Kathryn Treanor, member services coordinator at the senior nonprofit Rapp at Home, is offering to sign up eligible residents who don’t have consistent internet access — about eight percent of their members — as well as any other residents who call requesting assistance.
The survey form requires an email address, but Treanor enters her own and makes a note that the applicant doesn’t have an email and should be called directly to schedule an appointment.
So far she’s signed up fewer than 10 people over the past two weeks, but she expects that number to go up as Rapp at Home continues sending updates to members through direct mail.
“As much as anything else, it’s difficult for people to get information if they don’t have access to the internet because so much information is coming out to people that way,” Treanor said.
Darcy Canton at the Rappahannock Senior Center has called its 45 members to explain how to register for an appointment and provide them with the web address and phone number of the RRHD helpline. She can also help people find rides to vaccine sites through the center’s volunteers with a few days’ notice.
Rapp at Home is also looking to provide transportation to appointments once more of its volunteers have received their full vaccinations and Canton and Treanor are working to coordinate their efforts.
Pastor Jessie Colwell at Rappahannock Charge UMC said she’s had individual conversations with her congregation and offered to sign them up online.
Still, many residents are sharing information and links to appointment sites like Valley Health through Facebook, email or community listservs, which means not everyone has equal access.
Ellen Phipps, executive director of Culpeper-based Aging Together, a collective of organizations assisting seniors, said one of the greatest obstacles to connecting older adults to resources is the ability to reach rural, isolated seniors not connected to the internet.
“Access to information about critical services and basic healthcare can often be the difference between remaining at home with support or not and overcoming barriers to social isolation,” she said. “And isolated seniors may be unaware of programs and services that can help – such as food pantries; homecare, free transportation, caregiver support or vaccine information.”
Aging Together has been working with regional partners like Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Services to develop resource guides and provide iPads to seniors at long-term care facilities to connect with family and activities.
Where vaccine efforts stand
Virginia is currently inoculating people under Phase 1b, which includes anyone over the age of 65. But demand has far exceeded supply.
During a briefing before the Board of Supervisors Monday, Dr. Wade Kartchner, RRDH director, said the health district is receiving about 2,000 doses a week, but there are currently more than 25,000 people on the vaccine wait list across its five county service area.
“So unless we get more allocation, it’s going to take us a good amount of time to burn through the people that are currently on those lists,” he noted.
RRHD is working with Fauquier Health and Piedmont Family Practice, which will get 320 and 100 vaccine doses a week, respectively, to cover Rappahannock and Fauquier counties. Achter said its sharing portions of its survey list with each hospital as they set up vaccine clinics. Rappahannock County’s Department of Social Services is also working to identify people who are eligible to receive the vaccine to see if they want to be placed on a waitlist.
— RRHD helpline: 540-308-6072 for questions and assistance filling out the survey.
— Rapp at Home: 540-937-4663
— Rappahannock-Rapidan Community Service: Support coordinators answer questions at 540- 825-3100.
— Aging Together: 540-829-6405
— Rappahannock Senior Center: 540-987-3638
— Rappahannock County Public Library: Computers available by appointment at 540-675-3780
— Valley Health call center: 540-536-8000
By Sara Schonhardt
For Foothills Forum