The Cruelty of the Vaccine Lottery

I found out last week that I’m number 17,437 in line to get a Covid vaccine, although no one at my health care provider was able to tell me what that really signifies. Does this mean I’m days or weeks away from getting a Covid vaccine? Or months?

It was discouraging news, but then I heard about a 94-year-old woman here in Boulder whose number is 20,000-something. A social woman who loves to cook for others, she been isolated in her apartment since last March and has now fallen into a depression.  Why is she behind me in the vaccine line, when she is more than 20 years older?

I read that 80-year-olds and above comprise 54 percent of the deaths from the coronavirus, while people in their 70s account for 24 percent. So why are healthy 70-year-olds who are physically fit and able to leave their homes getting vaccinated before older and more frail seniors who have been languishing indoors for months? How is this fair?

I haven’t seen official figures for which age groups—in the 70-and-above category that is eligible now in Colorado’s phase 1B– are getting vaccinated the most quickly, so any information I have is anecdotal. But, among my friends and acquaintances, most of those in their 80s are still waiting, while most in their 70s have gotten their shots. I know this isn’t a deliberate decision to favor younger seniors, because from the little information out there about the vaccination process, I’ve surmised that health care providers are choosing randomly.

My only conclusion about this disparity is that those of us in our 70s are more tech savvy, and more willing and able to use the Internet to get information and to sign up for the vaccine—often with more than one health care provider. Many of those in their 80s and above aren’t as comfortable with technology and don’t use it as much. There are other hurdles as well for the older ones among us.

Several weeks ago, a neighbor in his 80s came to me upset because he found out he couldn’t get the vaccine without having an online account with his healthcare provider. He doesn’t own a computer or cell phone, so I set up the account, which was somewhat awkward, because I had to use my email with his name and home phone number. But it worked, and he is due for his shot in a week.

But the closest place for my neighbor to get the vaccine is 1½ hours away, which is not difficult if you’re a young driver who can navigate busy city streets using Google Maps. But my neighbor hardly drives anymore, and it will be a challenge for him to find the hospital in an unfamiliar city, while trying to read the directions I printed out for him. This whole process is  made more difficult because he’s the sole caregiver for his wife who has dementia and who will be in the car with him.

But there’s no way to get special treatment for him. In the vaccine forms, the only questions asked are: Are you over 70 or are you a health care worker? There’s no space to say: I’m the sole caregiver for my spouse, and if something happens to me, there’s no one to take care of her. Or: I’m 91 years old with kidney disease and would like to see my children and grandchildren before I die.

It’s the caregivers I have the most sympathy for, because their lives are already stressful, and having to chase down the vaccine for themselves and their loved ones only adds more stress.  But I also feel for friends who can’t drive anymore, so even if they manage to get an appointment, there is no guarantee that can get there, especially if the vaccine provider is 40 miles away.  

I know the situation is a difficult one for health care providers, too. The supply of vaccine is lower than what was expected. Plus, these massive health care systems, such as Kaiser Permanente, are not set up to easily accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people eligible for the vaccine, while also trying to deal with uncertain supplies and a pandemic that is still out of control almost a year after it started. To their credit, many health care providers have started providing sign-up access by phone to their older clients who don’t own computers.

Yet I have to wonder why it’s so difficult to sort the data so those over 80 get the vaccine before those in their 70s.  Instead, the vaccination process has become a lottery, where some people are lucky enough to get the shots while others have to wait. If the wait is long enough, some may die, especially if the new variant arrives. It seems a cruel game. Starting with last year, when nursing homes were hit the hardest by Covid-19, it’s the oldest Americans who have been most affected—not just through illness and death but also by social isolation. In the richest economy in the world, how have we failed once again the most vulnerable?

6 thoughts on “The Cruelty of the Vaccine Lottery

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  1. You make excellent points. The chaos is obvious when watching any news report. It’s heartbreaking to see people who’ve been on the phone all day to dozens of places trying to get an appointment for their elderly parents. Those in their 80s most definitely should be first in line, and someone needs to recognize that they aren’t all in nursing homes. I’m not sure what the governor is doing by adding more and more groups to the one being vaccinated now. What good is prioritization if you put everyone in the same group?

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  2. I know what you mean. My wife and I are in our 80s, in Florida (now a red zone) and all we are being told is that we are on the “Waiting” list. No number or anything. Just on the “Waiting” list. This a shame that one of the most developed and prosperous countries in the world “dropped the ball” on this one. It’s as though someone is saying “What’s the concern, they have to go sometime!”

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    1. Sorry to hear you’re having to endure this. Maybe we all need to make more noise with our government representatives.

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  3. «In the richest economy in the world, how have we failed once again the most vulnerable?»
    My friend, it is because the USA has behaved like a third world country, with a dictator who cared about nobody but himself; or even worse, despised the sick, the poor and the feeble.

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    1. I agree, but I think it’s also a symptom of health care systems that optimize profits over the well-being of their clients.

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