State and local officials want to make it easier for Ohio seniors to register for and get the coronavirus vaccine, but it’s still a “work in progress,” the governor said.
Gov. Mike DeWine, speaking to reporters during a Tuesday briefing on the state’s coronavirus response, acknowledged seniors are having difficulty signing up for the coronavirus vaccine — especially those who aren’t online. Mahoning Matters and other Ohio news outlets have heard from seniors complaining of clogged phone lines or who missed memos on signup sites.
This week, vaccine registration opened to those age 65 and older and the state began vaccinating its eldest and most at-risk, those age 80 and older. For more information, see our list of frequently asked questions about the coronavirus vaccine.
“Some health departments are doing phenomenal outreach jobs. … We want to continue to evaluate how we’re reaching them,” DeWine said Tuesday.
Direction Home of Eastern Ohio, the former Area Agency on Aging, isn’t reaching out to seniors but it’s been fielding their questions on the vaccine and helping them register for an upcoming vaccine clinic. The agency took hundreds of calls in one day last week, said CEO Joe Rossi.
Direction Home phone workers are able to take seniors’ signup information over the phone and register them through those online portals that have become a barrier — “trying to relieve some of the stress” on the health department’s systems, he said.
Direction Home can be reached at 330-505-2300.
The most common questions are the simplest ones — “where can I go to get the vaccine?” The state relied on local media to push scheduling information, and even Rossi’s been relying on news reports about vaccine availability.
“Early on, it’s been difficult to get information, but I think we’re better in the loop now with each of the health departments and the state,” he said. “Folks are in search of good information. We’re trying to provide it here. It’s a moving target.
“Our biggest concern [is] … a lot of seniors do not have computers.”
Can I just call?
Mahoning County Public Health now plans to make several temporary hires to work phone lines that became inundated last week after the agency opened up registration for the coronavirus vaccine to those aged 65 and older. Those phone lines, at 330-207-2855, are staffed from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.
As of Tuesday evening, the agency had received nearly 9,500 pre-registrations for the coronavirus vaccine, more than 3,800 of whom were 80 years or older and eligible for vaccination this week, Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac told MCPH board members during a Wednesday morning meeting.
“Our call center was not down but overwhelmed on Thursday [Jan. 14] and Friday; over the weekend,” Tekac said. “As more and more people have become registered, the phone lines have opened up.”
It’s a problem facing many health departments across the state, Tekac said. He asked residents who still haven’t gotten through to “be patient.”
The agency is expecting to hire between five and 10 temporary workers to help schedule vaccination appointments for Mahoning seniors, said Ed Janik, finance director.
It’s easiest to register through the Mahoning County Public Health website, Tekac said. He encouraged tech-savvy relatives or friends of vaccine-eligible seniors visit the website to register for them, using the registrant’s health information to complete the simple, 10-question form on the website.
How long will I have to wait?
Vaccine supply is so scarce that new allocations appear suddenly, making it difficult to plan ahead, Tekac said Wednesday.
Last week, the agency expected to have 400 doses ready for the first registrants in vaccine group 1B this week, but recently learned it’d have another 975 doses of the Pfizer vaccine on-hand for this week’s clinics, Tekac said.
When such sudden windfalls happen, “I wanna’ make sure we have the support staff here that we can gear up or ramp up and make those phone calls and get those individuals scheduled,” Tekac said.
The agency has requested another 1,500 vaccine doses from the Ohio Department of Health, based on the demand already seen in the county, Tekac said. In the coming weeks, more than 5,600 county seniors who have already registered for the vaccine will become eligible for their shot.
Though demand for the vaccine is expected to far outstrip supply for some time, the most important part is making sure you get on the list.
“They’re going to get their shots. It’s just the vaccines aren’t coming in as fast as we’d like,” Rossi said.
How can I get there?
Transportation to the clinics is another hurdle officials are trying to clear. Direction Home is working with providers like Associated Neighborhood Center, Mahoning/Youngstown Community Action Partnership and Youngstown’s Just in Time Staffing on contracts to offer clinic shuttles.
Many providers are not yet prepared to transport safely due to pandemic restrictions on federally funded transportation contracts, Rossi said.
However, he said Easter Seals of Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana, is road-ready to help registrants get to their vaccine clinics. The nonprofit can be reached at 330-743-1168.
Rossi said the agency on aging is hoping for more state funding to pay other providers to help out.
In other business Wednesday, board members approved temporary overtime for employees who burned the midnight oil last week working through the sudden, massive influx of vaccine registrants. They’ll get time-and-a-half pay for overtime, weekend and holiday hours.
They also gave Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac another three years at the helm of county health in a contract extension vote.
Tekac was appointed to take over from former Health Commissioner Patricia Sweeney in October 2019, mere months before the county identified its first case of the novel coronavirus.
“It’s been stressful times. But there’s always a smile underneath this mask,” Tekac said. “We’re looking forward to another successful three years for sure.”