Elders are statistically less likely than younger people to have access to the internet.
Health centers and pharmacies use social media and other digital tools to schedule vaccinations and spread important information about Covid-19. Some community members can make health appointments easier than ever before, with the click of a button. But other people without internet access struggle to learn about vaccines and find up-to-date information about the pandemic.
As the country grapples to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible, the internet provides a platform to reach people in their homes. While digital vaccine sign-ups pose a convenient option for people with internet access, some people are left behind.
Ironically, people without internet — like elders and those living in rural environments — are highly at-risk for contracting Covid-19 in the first place.
For those with a computer and internet access, digital vaccination appointments present several benefits. Websites can process large amounts of data at a time. Without the option to make appointments online, pharmacies might need to hire extra staff to process the influx of calls from people requesting Covid-19 vaccines.
Social media is another way for health professionals to quickly disseminate information about local resources, last-minute vaccine openings, mask mandates, or policy changes.
Digital sign-ups also enable patients to easily compare different vaccination options and sites in their area. People can scroll through the calendar of vaccination availability at sites like Publix, Walmart, and CVS. Instead of making separate phone calls to each location to find out this information, community members can simply toggle between the pharmacies’ websites in different tabs on their phone or computer.
However, this sign-up method works only for individuals who can actually access the pharmacy or health department website to make an appointment for a vaccine.
Elders and people living in rural areas, like in Appalachia, may struggle to access health information and schedule medical appointments online. People of color in these communities face an increased burden of inaccessibility.
According to Older Adults Technology Services, Inc., 22 million elderly Americans are weathering quarantine without an internet connection. This statistic doesn’t account for the numerous others who have unreliable or spotty internet, use a hotspot, or have partial internet access. 1 in 4 people in rural areas go without internet, so those elders living in small towns may feel doubly removed from digital health communications.
There is a cruel irony behind this internet access disparity. Elders are one of the most at-risk groups for contracting Covid-19, and people who live in rural locations like Appalachia tend to have less access to healthcare resources and higher rates of illnesses and preexisting conditions. Rural and elderly Americans are among those people who might benefit most from getting a Covid-19 vaccine. However, many of these at-risk individuals do not have the technological resources that they need to access pharmacy websites to schedule their own vaccine.
Healthcare providers and advocates are working to provide offline health resources. Some groups like Los Promotores del Valle de San Luis are going door-to-door to share news about the vaccine and combat Covid misinformation in their communities. Information sent by mail can provide one offline solution to this health communications disparity.
In this period of quarantine, telephone outreach is one of the most common offline alternatives to scheduling a Covid-19 vaccine. First Coast News reports that in St. Johns, Florida, residents can call a county number and set up an vaccine appointment over the phone. However, this strategy still prioritizes people who can schedule online. Since the county helpline opens up at 9 in the morning, many elders find that vaccine appointments have already been booked by people who could access the website earlier that day.
Some local pharmacies encourage residents to call and try to set up an appointment, or to request a spot on a vaccine waitlist. In Gainesville, Florida, a Walmart pharmacy calls people from a pages-long waitlist when they have extra shots at the end of the day.
Human Rights Watch recommends that clinics partner with local clergy and volunteers to advertise phone help lines, offering telephone sign-ups alongside internet appointment slots. Organizations should also consider streamlining their digital forms and communications. QR codes or hard-to-see CAPTCHAs can make these websites hard to read and difficult to navigate, especially for people who do not often use computers in the first place.
If you are interested in helping your neighbors without internet access learn more about vaccination efforts in your community, there are several ways that you can intervene.
First, contact your local health department and pharmacies in your area to ask how a person without internet access may schedule a vaccine. These organizations and pharmacies can provide you with phone numbers and offline sign-up procedures.
Second, share this information with your elderly neighbors and others who may not have internet access. You may consider printing off flyers with these phone numbers and posting them in grocery stores, parks, places of worship, or in other community hubs.
Laken Brooks is a PhD English student at the University of Florida where she studies the intersections between technology, art, and healthcare. She grew up in a family of