Community Health

Online sign-ups have allowed hundreds of thousands of people to quickly register for the COVID-19 vaccine. But getting signed up online is not without challenges. Appointment times are limited, and the websites can be buggy, complex and require users to enter a lot of information. 

That process has been frustrating for people without access to technology, or with less tech savvy. It may be why some of the most vulnerable to the virus —  the elderly, especially Black seniors — have struggled to get vaccinated without dedicated help or outreach.  

Community, Activists Work To Fill Gaps

Outside the California Square senior living home, volunteers with Black Lives Matter Louisville helped residents board a long white van to get their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine last week. Black Lives Matter has been helping elderly Black people in west Louisville overcome a number of barriers to getting vaccinated: transportation, distrust of the vaccine and, often, just getting signed up.

“I mean, come on. It’s online registration. They can’t do that,” California Square resident services coordinator Janeane Louden said. 

The high-rise apartment building, located in Louisville’s California neighborhood, is home to many seniors and people with disabilities. But it’s not technically a long-term care facility, so residents weren’t eligible during the first phase of the vaccine rollout.

The online registration process has been frustrating for lots of people, but especially for seniors, who often have less experience with computers or smartphones, and trouble using those interfaces. That’s why Louden takes care of registration for her residents, or sometimes she gets help from Black Lives Matter.

But not everyone has a Janeane Louden looking out for them. 

Harriett Rankin, a volunteer with Black Lives Matter Louisville, realized right at the beginning of the vaccine rollout that online sign-ups were a problem for people in her neighborhood of Shawnee. Many longtime older residents are living alone, and without internet access, she said. Louisvillians who are Black or over age 65 are less likely to have internet access than their counterparts, according to the Greater Louisville Project.

Vaccine providers do have phone numbers to call for appointment sign-ups, but people typically have to get online to find them, and Rankin said she talked to some seniors who were “getting the run-around,” with long wait times. So she took matters into her own hands.

“I have my laptop with me because I will register people right then and there,” Rankin said.

She also schedules free van rides through Black Lives Matter from homes to the vaccination sites. The group pays several hundred dollars a day for the van service.

Shelton McElroy, another Black Lives Matter volunteer, said even learning about vaccination opportunities usually requires some level of technology access and savvy. 

“What we have is this conundrum that people, when they want to market to communities right now, they want to put everything on social media,” he said.

Black Lives Matter volunteer Shelton McElroy helps seniors in the West End get to vaccination sites.Jess Clark | wfpl.org

Black Lives Matter volunteer Shelton McElroy helps seniors in the West End get to vaccination sites.

Nearly all of Louisville Metro’s communications about where to access the vaccines are online. 

McElroy said he would like to see the city or its healthcare partners canvass neighborhoods with hard copy flyers and phone numbers. The digital flyers are just too hard to use for many elderly, he said. So is any flyer with a URL. 

Back at California Square, the seniors took their seats and the van headed to Emmanuel Baptist Church on West Broadway, where UofL Health was holding a community pop-up vaccination clinic.  

Louisville resident Felicia Collier got her second dose at the church that day. She decided to go there after struggling to get an appointment online through CVS and Walgreens.

“It’s too hard. You can’t get an appointment. They’ll tell you to check back and check back, and every time you check back it’s ‘no,’” she said.

Collier, who is Black, found out about the vaccinations at Emmanuel Baptist through her church network. 

Partnering with Black churches is the strategy vaccine providers have been using to reach Black Louisvillians, who face more barriers getting appointments online, or getting to mass vaccination sites. Norton Healthcare and UofL Health have vaccinated thousands of people through church pop-ups. But not all Black Louisvillians are church members. 

“It is a challenge for folks that aren’t connected to specific faith congregations to get the feedback loop that there is vaccination going on there [at the church],” McElroy said.

Black Lives Matter works with churches to bridge the gap, distributing flyers and spreading the word through the surrounding neighborhoods. But McElroy wants the city to come up with additional creative solutions, like going to senior living homes in Black neighborhoods.

He said he’s disappointed with the way the city rolled out the vaccine, but he’s not surprised.

“To expect the city to be responsive to Black people in Louisville, Ky., would be an extremely naïve thing to do considering the historical neglect and oppression that the city has perpetuated on Black communities,” McElroy said. 

He pointed to decades of discriminatory housing practices, the lack of basic amenities like grocery stores in some Black neighborhoods and the police killing of Breonna Taylor.

The City’s Changing Approach

In early March, Dr. SarahBeth Hartlage, who is leading Louisville Metro Health’s vaccine rollout, said the city didn’t have the resources to canvass specific communities.

“We, for one thing, don’t really have the manpower because I’m running hundreds of people through mass vaccination sites, which are the most efficient way to deliver vaccines to the population,” Hartlage said.

But the city’s strategy is changing. On Tuesday, officials announced the health department would wind down the mass vaccination site at Broadbent Arena, and shift to a mobile vaccine operation. 

And U of L Health branched out of the church network on Saturday, with a major vaccination event at the African American Heritage Center. The organization planned for 2,500 vaccinations. Black churches were involved in spreading the word and providing transportation. They distributed hard copy flyers throughout the West End. 

Meanwhile, at California Square, resident coordinator Louden was celebrating a big victory: She had convinced Uof L Health to vaccinate her residents on site.

“Yes!” Louden said, throwing her fist in the air. “They are coming to ours! I’m so happy I don’t know what to do.”

Black Lives Matter volunteers said they’ll keep helping people sign up for the vaccine and get to the sites, wherever they are.

“I think this is actually what the world should look like,” said McElroy, who is Black. “It should look like us providing safety for us.”

Vaccine Scheduling Resources

To schedule an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine, or get help scheduling one, you can call any of the following numbers, or follow this link.

Norton Healthcare: 502-861-4499

Walgreens: 1-800-925-4733

CVS: 1-800-746-7287

U of L Health: 502-681-1435

Louisville Metro Health COVID-19 Helpline: 502-912-8598

Kentucky Vaccine Assistance: 855-598-2246

 

For transportation assistance to a vaccination site:

TARC3 Eligibility Office: 502-213-3217

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.