Federal and state governments need to make it easier for Americans to get information and appointments for a COVID-19 vaccination because many older adults are frustrated by confusing and complicated processes that differ from state to state, AARP says in a letter to a congressional subcommittee that held a coronavirus hearing on Wednesday.

“We continue to hear from members who are struggling to make appointments, including those who do not have access to the internet,” Nancy LeaMond, AARP executive vice president and chief advocacy and engagement officer, says in the letter to the leadership of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s health subcommittee. “Americans over the age of 50 are unsure how to make or confirm their appointment and are deeply frustrated and increasingly desperate.”

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In its letter, AARP outlines a number of steps lawmakers can take to lessen the problems consumers have in getting a COVID-19 vaccination:

  • Work with states to develop toll-free 800 numbers for scheduling vaccination appointments and ensure that these numbers are staffed with competent customer service representatives.
  • Make sure all consumers have access to a centralized online tool that they can search by zip code to find where they can get a vaccination. This tool and the 800 numbers should be available in a variety of languages.
  • Allow people to review and sign the necessary consent forms for vaccinations online before they get to the site.
  • Standardize the information patients need to have with them when they arrive at their vaccination appointments.

AARP’s letter illustrates for lawmakers how demand for the vaccines has far outstripped the supply. During the week of Jan. 18, for example, Minnesota’s vaccination appointment website received more than 1 million hits for only 6,000 appointments.

Vaccination process needs equity

During the hearing, Julie Morita, a physician and vice president at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, called for a simplified vaccination system.

“Vaccines are only as effective as people’s ability to obtain them and their willingness to take them,” said Morita, a former commissioner of health in Chicago. “Those with means and privilege are increasingly getting vaccinations before those with highest exposure and risk.”

Morita said not everyone has access to an internet connection to make an appointment online or a car to drive to a large vaccination site. She said that states not only need more public health resources but that more federal coordination is needed to ensure that the vaccine is provided equitably across the country.

In the AARP letter, LeaMond also addressed the concern that many workers in long-term care facilities have chosen not to get vaccinated. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only 38 percent of nursing home staff agreed to be vaccinated between Dec. 18, 2020, and Jan 17, 2021. “More must be done,” LeaMond said, “to save lives and ensure that staff, residents and their families feel confident in COVID-19 vaccines.”

AARP is also working, LeaMond said, to get information about vaccine availability and distribution to people as quickly as possible. “We urge you,” LeaMond says in the letter “to pay special attention to communities that may need specific education and outreach, such as rural communities and diverse communities.”

Dena Bunis covers Medicare, health care, health policy and Congress. She also writes the “Medicare Made Easy” column for the AARP Bulletin. An award-winning journalist, Bunis spent decades working for metropolitan daily newspapers, including as Washington bureau chief for the Orange County Register and as a health policy and workplace writer for Newsday.

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