Libraries Help Seniors Sign Up for Vaccines

Among the many problems, including daunting refrigeration requirements, difficulty in traveling to centralized sites, and hesitancy driven in part by misinformation, was that most vaccine appointment registration is available only on the internet. And as few know better than librarians, a significant portion of the population lacks the devices, the connectivity, or the skills to use the web. 

senior man in wheelchair at desk in library with laptop
Senior at El Dorado County Library System gets help making a vaccine appointment
Photo credit: Christian Koszka and the California State Library 

The arrival of long-awaited COVID vaccines for distribution across the United States was the best news many people have had since the pandemic’s appearance in early 2020. Public health agencies scrambled to determine the best means for getting the first round of vaccines to the people at the most risk: the elderly and people with significant underlying medical conditions.

Among the many problems, including daunting refrigeration requirements, difficulty in traveling to centralized sites, and hesitancy driven in part by misinformation, was that most vaccine appointment registration is available only on the internet. And as few know better than librarians, a significant portion of the population lacks the devices, the connectivity, or the skills to use the web. And while home internet use has increased over time in every age group, according to the Pew Research Center, people over 65 remain the least likely to do so: in 2019, more than a quarter of seniors did not.

Dee Culbertson, director of the Madison Public Library in Lake County, OH, said her staff realized there was a problem early on. “One gentleman sat and waited for a grocery store website to tell him if he could get a vaccine that day. One of our staff had tried early that morning and got a response that there was no vaccine available that day. When the library was closing, the gentleman asked if we could leave the computer on, so maybe he could still get a vaccine. We had to explain that there were no more that day, he’d have to start over the next day. That’s when we began talking about doing something to help people.” The staff quickly realized that gentleman was not alone. “A lot of people in this community are seniors. They can’t manage the technology, or they don’t have the tech. In Lake County, you have to sign up online [and] have an email address or the ability to receive text messages.”

Carolyn Brooks, director of library services for California’s El Dorado County Library system, also saw the need right away. “In January, seniors begin showing up at public health offices,” she said. “The Emergency Operations Center contacted us—‘Can we send them to you?’ It’s not just no access…they have no email, they don’t know how to use the internet, no experience in that area. It’s a much larger problem. We had literally thousands of panicked seniors. Forty-one percent of our county is over 65, the highest percentage in the state.”

This situation was playing out in libraries everywhere, with the result that many began considering what they could do to help. “We don’t normally do things for them on the computer,” said Culbertson. “We just make the computers available. But the staff wanted to help. We decided this time we will.” That means working fairly closely with people. “We asked our staff, ‘Do you feel safe doing this?’ We make sure everyone is masked and distanced.”

There have been blips with rolling out the process, she noted. “We put out a press release about two weeks ago and got quite a bit of response. But some people thought we could actually give the vaccine. Others thought we could hurry up the process. Neither of these is true.”

Some library systems realized that certain segments of the population were not receiving vaccinations on pace with the population as a whole. “We saw early on the equity problem, the CDC stats showing nonwhites are much more likely to be diagnosed, hospitalized, and die,” said Jason Kucsma, executive director/fiscal officer for the Toledo Lucas County Library (TLCL), OH. “We learned that in our county, by the end of February, only 5 percent of nonwhites had been vaccinated, as opposed to 12 percent of whites.”

He noted that they know where the more at-risk groups are from census data. “A lot are in the central city,” he said. “The United Way is doing door-to-door campaigns. Our local Office on Aging is calling people.” Working with those groups, Kucsma’s staff helps people access the internet and fill out the required web forms. The TLCL system has the advantage of being located in places where most residents can either walk to their locations or are on a bus line.

The same lack of equity was true in Cleveland, according to Felton Thomas, Jr., executive director/CEO of the Cleveland Public Library. “Cleveland is more than 50 percent African American,” he said. “The reality is that we needed to find as much access space as possible.” Technology was a barrier for the senior population there as well, but one aspect of the library’s partnerships with various local organizations led to a simple solution: The city’s 211 phone system adapted to be able to help callers register for the vaccine. Thomas and his staff worked to get the word out to affected seniors. They’ve also increased efforts to let seniors know about the city’s Wolstein Center being turned into a 6,000-vaccine-per-day supersite.

At both the California and Ohio library systems, staff is now helping people walk through the sometimes convoluted process to register for the vaccines online. At the Mabel C. Fry Library in Yukon, OK, staff help visitors set up the foundations for getting an appointment. “We have a main portal where people can sign up to be able to register for the vaccine,” said librarian Sara Schieman. “All we can do is help people sign up for the portal. When they call asking for help, we tell them to come with their physical address and an email address, theirs or someone else’s who will check it for them.”

City government helped put the word out. “Our mayor was insistent that the library be able to help. They sent out ads to TV stations: ‘The library can help.’ There’s a lot of desperation, a lot of underserved seniors. We can calm them down, help them understand the process. We help calm people’s fears.”

That’s an important part of helping people register, said Brooks. “The seniors feel alone, isolated, forgotten. They’re so thankful. The outreach of information has involved the county website and social media, but many seniors aren’t able to access those. Even for seniors who have internet, there are parts of our county where dial-up barely works. They need someone to provide information, and that’s what we do.”

It’s time-consuming work, but all the library staff interviewed for this story saw it as necessary and invaluable. Schieman recounted the story of an elderly couple who called her library, worried about how to get the vaccine. “I helped them get onto the portal. I asked if there was someone who could watch email for them. They said their nephew. I told them to call their nephew ASAP, because I could see vaccine appointments were available. I said, Go now, an hour from now may be too late.”

In Culbertson’s system, the state is working with them to distribute rapid testing kits too. “Sometimes people have to travel 30 to 40 miles to get a test,” she said. “This will make it much easier.”

Which is not to say difficulties don’t exist. “It’s a challenge for staff,” said Brooks. “Sometimes the best we can do is put someone on a list. We tell them we’ll call them when we can make an appointment. We had to change the message on the phone line to reflect that they wouldn’t be called back until there was an appointment, because people kept calling to see if they had an appointment yet. No one’s done this in the history of the world. There have been hiccups, but I’m so proud of how we’ve worked through this.”

Thomas said, “One thing we’ve been happy to see along this really long year—a bright spot is seeing us really making a difference in our seniors’ lives and how they needed us in ways that we didn’t understand. The library is a difference maker. It’s really important for us to help them know that we’re there to help make people’s lives better or easier in this challenging time.”

Schieman agreed. “It helps people to feel like they’ve taken a step toward being vaccinated. It gives them hope.”

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