| Great Falls Tribune
Biden unveils COVID strategy: ‘Help is on the way’
President Joe Biden unveiled his national COVID-19 strategy to ramp up vaccinations and testing, reopen schools and businesses and increase the use of masks. Biden said the crisis will get worse before it gets better, but “help is on the way.” (Jan. 21)
Thousands of Cascade County residents stared at their computers and phones on Thursday morning, anxiously waiting for Benefis Health System to open 1,500 available appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine.
But the appointment slots, which were available to residents age 70 and older, filled within minutes, leaving many community members frustrated and disappointed.
Larry and Roberta Powell tried calling Benefis and visiting their website to schedule appointments for Roberta’s 97-year-old parents.
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Larry said they logged on at 9 a.m. when the appointments opened, but by the time the page loaded, all slots were filled.
“They feel forgotten in this mess,” Larry said of Roberta’s parents, adding that one parent is on oxygen and the other uses a feeding tube.
“It doesn’t’ make sense to them that they can’t get a priority.”
Because appointments filled on a first-come, first-served basis and required computer literacy and a valid email address for scheduling, the sign-up process was a barrier for many elderly people who may not be comfortable using technology.
Lorraine Reed on Facebook likened the system to “survival of the fittest” for computer knowledge. Another Great Falls resident said the experience was like “internet roulette.”
Judy Croghan, 79, said she logged on at 9 a.m. and couldn’t get an appointment.
“This is difficult and very frustrating, at my age,” she wrote on Facebook.
Many said the process was stressful, considering people age 70 and older are more likely to experience complications from COVID-19. A December Department of Public Health and Human Services report found the median age of COVID-19 related deaths in Montana was 78 years old. The median age of those who had been hospitalized for COVID-19 was 69.
With more vaccine appointments coming soon, health department urges patience
Anna Attaway, communications specialist for the Cascade City-County Health Department, said the department is aware people are upset they didn’t get an appointment but grateful to see so many wanting the vaccine.
“At this time, the main obstacle to widespread vaccination for those who want it is the supply chain and limited staffing at our health care partners,” she wrote in an email to the Tribune.
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Attaway said when the county receives more doses, the health department will reopen the www.benefis.org/COVIDvaccine portal with new appointment times. According to the website, new vaccine appointment times will open Thursday, Jan. 28 at 9 a.m.
“Please know that we want to provide our residents with the vaccine as much as they want to receive it, and we are working hard to ensure that happens quickly!” Attaway said.
Benefis expects it will take four weeks to administer the first dose of the vaccine to everyone in Cascade County who qualifies for Phase 1B, which includes those who are 70 and older, people with underlying health conditions and people of color. Due to a limited vaccine supply, however, the public health entities are prioritizing those age 70 and older to receive shots first.
‘I can’t imagine these people doing this on their own’: Elderly struggle to schedule vaccine appointments
Sherry Stearns said her 78-year-old mother was in tears at the prospect of scheduling a vaccination appointment for herself.
Stearns’ mother, who has a number of underlying health conditions, only uses her computer for Facebook, and Stearns’ 91-year-old father uses his exclusively to play games.
Knowing her parents wouldn’t be able to make appointments for themselves, Stearns logged on to her computer on Thursday, hoping to secure two appointments.
When she opened the scheduling site, Stearns said the page was stuck loading. Feeling anxious, she quickly opened her phone and tried to make an appointment there.
Stearns was able to secure an appointment for her mother on her phone and immediately called her to deliver the news.
“I said, ‘I got you one! I got you one!’ I was so excited, and we were both just so relieved,” she said.
To her surprise, when her computer finished loading, a message read she had scheduled an appointment for her father as well.
Stearns said some of her mother’s friends don’t have adult children to help them make appointments, so she offered to help the next time appointments become available.
“I can’t imagine these people doing this on their own. I hope more vaccines come soon, I really hope so,” she said.
As of Thursday, 66,340 COVID-19 vaccines had been administered in Montana, and 12,222 Montanans had been fully immunized with both doses.
For more information on how to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination appointment, please visit www.benefis.org/COVIDvaccine.
Nora Mabie can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Facebook @NoraMabieJournalist or on Twitter @NoraMabie. To support coverage of COVID-19 in Montana, subscribe today.