“I got a miracle.”
That’s how William Slay, a 92-year-old in Cypress, Texas, outside of Houston, describes his struggle to get a coronavirus vaccine, a quest that finally bore fruit last Tuesday.
It involved weeks of phone calls and emails to the governor’s office, to his county health department, to hospitals and pharmacies and doctors’ offices.
As he recalled, “In each case, the response you got from a live person was, ‘We don’t have any vaccine, and we don’t know when we will get our next shipment.’ And I would say, ‘Can you put my name on a waiting list?’ And they’d say, ‘We don’t have a waiting list,’ And I’d say, ‘How will I know when it’s available?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, you’ll just have to keep checking back.’”
In the end, Slay broke out of that nightmarish, frustrating loop through a combination of luck, ingenuity, and the generosity of a stranger. His story is just one example of how startlingly unavailable the vaccine remains to some of America’s most vulnerable, and how often the elderly need someone younger—and more tech -literate—to help them get a shot.
In Slay’s case, he posted about his predicament on NextDoor, the hyperlocal social networking service for neighborhoods founded in 2008.
His plea: “I am age 93; have heart condition with pacemaker; have diabetes; recovering from prostate cancer... but have been totally unable to get any information about getting vaccination… I am not just most vulnerable; I am an endangered species.”
Maureen Taylor, a 78-year-old who was browsing NextDoor that day, saw Slay’s post and was moved by it. So she sent him a private message with her contact information early last week, Taylor recalled in an interview. Taylor was scheduled to receive her vaccination at an urgent care center the next day, on Jan. 5.
Taylor told Slay she would ask the staff if they had any no-shows for appointments.
“As we’re waiting, the manager came to me,” said Taylor. “She said, ‘Well, we do have one—can he be here in 30 minutes?’”
Just like that, Slay said, he received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine. He’s scheduled to get his second dose on Jan. 29, the same day that Taylor receives hers.
“Maureen saved my life,” said Slay, who called her an “angel.”
But Slay is still troubled by how much of his story would be difficult to replicate for others in his age bracket—and by what he called “the sloppy manner” in which the vaccines are being distributed in Texas and the rest of the country.
“It was absolutely chaos,” Slay told The Daily Beast over the phone on Monday. “Apparently, it was as though they felt like if they got it as far out as the pharmacies and hospitals, that it would just take care of itself. They just had no plan.”
Neither the office of Gov. Greg Abbott nor the state’s department of health responded to requests for comment on Monday. The Harris County Public Health department also did not provide comment.
In any case, Texas is not alone.
Lucy Caldwell, a 33-year-old who works in Washington, D.C., as a political strategist and technologist, told The Daily Beast she helped her 81-year-old, Arizona-based grandmother sign up for a vaccine after she encountered similar issues.
“She’s far more tech-savvy than most people decades her junior, but the state-run vax website is glitchy, timing out, and quite hard to navigate—even for me,” Caldwell tweeted on Monday, telling The Daily Beast afterward that “the whole thing is a complete cluster.”
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“I stepped in to help because the insanity of this website made her think maybe she was doing something wrong,” said Caldwell, adding that, while she successfully grabbed an appointment for her grandmother, she knows many others all over the country still need help.
“It’s really pathetic on the whole. These states have had months to prepare for this,” said Caldwell. “It’s awful to think of a poorly built website being the difference between someone—especially elderly Americans—being able to get back to their normal lives.”
Neither Gov. Greg Doucey’s office nor the Arizona Department of Health Services responded to a request for comment.
In Sarasota, Florida, seniors told The Daily Beast that the various ways to register for appointments online remained simply too difficult to manage. Toni Goldberg, 84, said she’s been trying for weeks to log on and get a spot via the county’s Eventbrite page, but also through many other Florida counties.
“I will go anywhere if it’s within reasonable driving distance,” said Goldberg. “I am kind of desperate.”
“I understand there has to be a waiting line,” she added. “But I mean within seconds—seconds—they’re sold out. I’ve done all the appropriate things, I’m just stymied by the system itself.”
Elderly Americans struggling to navigate vaccine sign-up technology has been a problem reported throughout the state. In many cases, their slightly younger peers have a leg-up on them.
“The 65-year-olds are taking the spots that people in their nineties and eighties are trying to reserve,” said Dottie Garner, an 87-year-old Sarasota resident.
Garner told The Daily Beast on Monday that she was only able to get an appointment after seeking the help of five separate family members all over the country who were able to navigate a system she described as complicated and confusing.
“They all came to my rescue,” said Garner, who received her first shot last Wednesday. “I live on my own so I wasn’t able to get one through a nursing home. I do have a caregiver who—once I did get the appointment—went with me. The site was extremely well organized, but it was getting the appointment that was the problem.”
In an email on Tuesday, G. Steve Huard, the public information officer for the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota, said his department is “aware of citizen frustration” with the scheduling system and “is working to make the scheduling process as smooth as possible.”
“We are currently evaluating options for a new reservation system for initial vaccines and second doses,” he added. “We do anticipate opportunities for drive through clinics, geographic area specific clinics, and additional opportunities for everyone in the designated priority groups in the future as more vaccine becomes available.”
Back in Texas, Slay echoed Garner’s frustration, saying the sheer volume of people who are over the age of 65 made it more difficult for those his age to find slots before they filled up. And that was poised to possibly get even worse after Tuesday, when the Trump administration recommended states loosen guidelines to vaccinate everyone 65 or older. Until now, that had only been the case in select states, like Texas and Florida.
Slay acknowledged that he’s lucky to understand how to use social networking, email, his cellphone—and to still be able to drive himself to his appointment, when it came with just 30 minutes’ notice.
On that score, Taylor agreed, saying—in Texas at least—the vaccine rollout “has been so badly handled.”
The only silver lining, she told The Daily Beast, is that she knows many others who’ve used unofficial platforms “as a vehicle for communicating” about where to acquire the vaccine.
“It’s people helping people,” said Taylor. “Adopt someone like I did and help your neighbor.”