South Fork Seniors Find Many Hurdles To Getting Vaccines

Herme Barbagallo lives at the St. Michael's senior housing complex in Amagansett and has not been able to get a vaccination appointment through the state portals. Michael Heller

Exasperation over the difficulty in getting appointments for vaccination shots has been almost universal among the approximately 10 million people now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in New York State.

But the hurdles to getting vaccinated have been highest for some of those who are the most in need of protection.

For many of the senior citizens on the South Fork, navigating the online eligibility questionnaires over and over — and over, and over, and over, and over — or the endless busy signals on the state’s telephone hotline are prohibitively complicated or laborious.

And, for some, the effort may not even be worth tackling, because trekking to vaccination sites in western Suffolk County or Nassau County is not feasible even if they happen to stumble upon an available appointment.

“I wrote to the governor. I told him we have no vaccines out here,” said Joyce Flohr, an octogenarian from Springs. “Even if I got an appointment, I can’t get to Stony Brook. I have other medical issues, I can’t be out all day.

“I have one friend who got one in Riverhead, but I have not heard of anyone else getting one that close. I heard the CVS in Manorville, but even that is too far for me to go, I think. We need them here, at our CVS — that would be ideal.”

Six weeks after the state made everyone over the age of 65 eligible to receive the vaccine, there have still been only a few hundred doses made available for seniors east of the Shinnecock Canal.

The state and the Latino advocacy group OLA of Eastern Long Island distributed 250 shots on Friday in East Hampton. Sun River Health has distributed about 300 in Southampton Village, and the Rite-Aid pharmacy in Bridgehampton has been offering about 20 shots per day, available only with appointments made through the Walgreens online portal.

Whether it’s 20 appointments in Bridgehampton or 2,000 at Stony Brook, seniors say that the online reservation system is stacked against them.

The online portals each require completing a step-by-step process of determining an individual’s eligibility before the sites will open the portal to available appointments. A number of pitfalls or hurdles can force you to begin again.

Almost uniformly, those who have navigated the process tell a tale of having to proceed this way for hours on end until they strike gold and land an appointment.

The process can be maddening for even the most computer savvy individual. Those who are not digitally inclined themselves, or don’t have family members who are able to spend hours at computers on their behalf, are left at an enormous disadvantage.

“The sites are for the birds — they are insulting. You go through all the motions, and then it says, ‘no, sorry,’ and you have to start over,” groused Herme Barbagallo, a 72-year-old cancer survivor and diabetic who said she has struggled for weeks with the state appointment sites to no avail.

She lives in the St. Michael’s senior housing development in Amagansett and said that many of her neighbors don’t have the wherewithal to wrestle with the online portals at all. “I have a computer and an iPad, and it’s still a struggle, but a lot of people here don’t even have a computer. I finally got through by calling the [New York State vaccination hotline], and she asked me if I could get to Syracuse.”

Stanley Dykovitz of Southampton Village is a 99-year-old retired bayman and U.S. Navy veteran — and he is no shut-in. He tools around Southampton in his pickup truck daily, having just last month gotten his driver’s license renewed for another eight years. He has an iPad.

But traveling to Stony Brook or Jones Beach is not something he can do, and spending long hours online trying to get an appointment locally has fallen off his radar for now. He said he would gladly take a vaccination when they are easy to get nearby.

“I might go to Riverhead, but I’ll wait until we have them here. If it’s a couple months, that’s okay,” he said gesturing to a story in last week’s edition of The Southampton Press about the state announcing that Southampton High School will be a mass vaccination site when shots are more widely available in April. “I’ve been in the house for the last year now. When I go out, I put on my mask.”

For senior citizens who do not have family members to help them, there have been precious few outlets for assistance in trying to get appointments and transportation to distant vaccination distribution sites. Town senior services programs on the South Fork are largely focused on meal distribution now to help seniors remain at home safely until vaccines are more widely available, since staff are unable to provide the hours of time that it might take to get a single appointment and transportation services have been halted because of the dangers of multi-passenger vehicles.

In some places, so-called “COVID Angels” have offered to help seniors in need of assistance.

Paula DiDonato, owner of The Giving Room organic market in Southold, tag-teamed with her sisters to get their 86-year-old mother an appointment in January. She saw the process itself, and then, having seen the extent to which many seniors had to go to when it came time for their actual appointments, it led her to help other seniors she has connected with over Facebook navigate the process.

“I was really moved by the sight of so many people who needed assistance just to get there physically — it washed over me what these people are having to do,” Ms. DiDonato said. “So I put a post on Facebook offering some guidance, at least on the appointments process. A lot of older people, even if the are computer savvy, just don’t have the capacity to be online all day or late at night doing this. So I’ve been offering the best advice I can about when to do online and where to look for appointments and some of the tricks.”

Pharmacist Lou Cassera of Barth’s Pharmacy, who secured more than 1,000 doses of the vaccine for customers and distributed them in Westhampton Beach last month — and is now preparing to administer the second doses — said that the financial and logistical complexities of the vaccine allocation system have prevented more small pharmacists from doing what he did and the vaccines being spread further into the easternmost communities.

Paying shot-givers and clerical staff to manage the paperwork each vaccination administered requires adds up quickly, he said, and while pharmacies may bill Medicare for the costs and can make a vaccination day financially worthwhile, it is a herculean task.

“Just the logistics are too much for a lot of pharmacists,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for a small business and a good opportunity for a pharmacist to make a connection to customers doing something more than counting pills. But it needs to be easier.”

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said he has pleaded with the state to help get more doses that are available for seniors to East Hampton, where the town has set up and staffed a mass vaccination center that he thinks could administer up 1,000 doses per day or more.

The town is about to launch a dedicated vaccination website that will be a portal for all the best information and necessary documents for vaccines, with links to the necessary forms and the various websites that offer appointments. And the vaccination center awaits a reason to turn its lights back on.

A pharmacist who was able to arrange for an allotment of shots could hand off the logistical burdens to the town, the supervisor said, which has a long list of volunteers ready to mobilize the vaccination POD on a moment’s notice. The town also has a list of some 750 seniors that its human resources staff checks in on regularly that could quickly be arranged into a prioritized vaccination call list.

“We’re very concerned — some of our seniors have essentially been shut-ins for a year now, and we need to get them vaccinated so they are not spending their golden years trapped in their houses,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said.

“We’ve been working all the channels. It’s getting to be dire out here. I need someone to give me vaccine.”