CINCINNATI — Vanessa Tye felt like she waited a long time to get the COVID-19 vaccine. She lives in a senior apartment building in Westwood, where she and her neighbors are among the Ohioans at highest risk of serious complications if they become ill with COVID-19; for an entire year, she struggled to control her fear when she heard coughs and sneezes nearby.
“I shouldn’t be feeling like that,” she said.
People her age were considered priority patients when the first vaccines were approved for use in the United States — but it still took until mid-March for Tye, her Westwood neighbors and hundreds of other Ohio seniors to secure their appointments with the needle.
Why? For many seniors, technology and transportation are steep barriers. Tye didn’t get her shot until her building provided buses to a vaccine site. Other people her age need help accessing the almost-entirely-online tools used to schedule appointments.
And these obstacles can become even more intense for seniors in Black communities, whom Pew researchers found are less likely than their white counterparts to be habitual internet users.
“We hear about folks that are trying to access the scheduling via online, and the digital divide is really a barrier for a lot of folks in our community,” said Cinnamon Pelly, chief operating officer for the Urban League of Southwestern Ohio.
Her agency has helped, in part, by setting up an easy-to-use online form that a user can fill out on behalf of a friend or family member. Responses to the form go to local health departments and have helped schedule about 500 appointments, Pelly said.
One of those appointments was for Kathy Wade, a jazz artist who heads the Cincinnati-based organization Learning Through Art.
“The process with the Urban League, once I signed up, the next thing that I got back was, ‘Now, pick a time, and this is the location that you're probably going to end up at,’” she said.
Her desire to travel, perform for in-person audiences and give hugs to the people she loves moved her to get the vaccine despite her lifelong distaste for shots.
“If this is the solution, then we have to step up and take it,” she said. “Because we can’t get to the other side unless we’re all getting there together. … If everybody is going to be a part of this, whatever the solution is, whatever the new normal is, you have to start with the shot.”
There’s a third obstacle to some senior vaccinations, Pelly added: Mistrust. Some seniors, especially those in minority communities, have reservations about the vaccine and want questions answered before they feel comfortable receiving it.
“There was a lot of angst and fear around not being the target of unscrupulous practices,” Pelly said of the patients she’s helped.
Vanessa Tye, the Westwood resident who got vaccinated alongside her neighbors, said she has family members who feel too suspicious to get the shot.
Barbara Nichols, who lives in a similar senior apartment building in Roselawn, used to have similar worries herself.
“I was undecided to take it,” she said. “I wanted to read more and find out more about it.”
But she, like Tye and Wade, wanted to return safely to the life she’d known before COVID-19. If getting the vaccine was the way to do it, she’d do it — just as long as nobody made her look at the needle.
“I made up my mind because I’m an active person,” she said right before her shot. “I like to go out, and I said, ‘Well, maybe if I take it, that would protect me.’”
About 2.8 million Ohioans had been vaccinated by Monday afternoon. Gov. Mike DeWine will make the state’s entire adult population eligible for vaccination on March 29 — meaning programs like the Urban League’s, which help seniors get appointments despite competition from younger would-be patients, might become more important than ever.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to come out of it sooner rather than later,” Pelly said of the pandemic. “But it can’t happen quick enough.”