HOUSTON — As more Texans attempt to register to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, it’s apparent there is a digital divide, and it’s widening by the day.
Earlier this week the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is leading the vaccination effort for the state, opened vaccination hubs. There are three hubs for the entire Houston region, which encompasses more than a dozen counties.
The City of Houston Health Department, Harris County Public Health and Methodist Hospital are serving as vaccination hubs for the Houston region. All three hubs report that no more appointments are currently available. Methodist Hospital reports it received 20,000 applications within 12 hours.
The only way to apply for a vaccine in Texas is online through a state hub or by calling your provider. It’s a harsh reality for elderly Texans who are not tech savvy.
Herman Sklar, a 95-year-old World War II veteran, is unable to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine.
His daughter, Emily Sklar Blechman, is trying to help him. In an email to KHOU 11 News, Blechman writes:
"He sees doctors at Memorial Hermann and has an email address that I monitor. I haven't seen an vax email for him. He goes to the VA and has his email registered there too. Nothing yet. His personal doctor is on the distribution list but they'll probably be a long time getting it. Every time I try to go online to any site or call (city, county, hospitals, etc) I'm too late. Very frustrating. Also have a 65+ spouse who's very immunocompromised and same issues. I cannot even imagine how a senior could do this without caregiver help of some kind."
Sonal Shah, a Fort Bend County stay-at-home mom, has devoted the last three weeks to advocating for her 82-year-old mother. Shah’s friend, a doctor, told her about the state’s vaccination hub on Monday.
Shah rushed to register her mother online.
“I registered her. But there was no email confirmation. The screen just went blank," Shah said. "So I wasn’t sure if she was registered or not.”
Shah received confirmation Thursday that her mother is signed up to receive the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on Saturday.
If only Marshall Pickett’s 84-year-old mother was as lucky.
“You just get routed to an automated phone service,” said Pickett of his attempts to reach Methodist Hospital, his mother’s provider, by phone. “This morning I was on hold for about an hour before I finally gave up.”
In a statement to KHOU 11, AARP Texas State Director Tina Tran writes that the AARP, which advocates for people over 50, is concerned about distribution problems and is fighting so that older people are prioritized to receive vaccines.
According to the Texas COVID-19 Vaccination Plan, dated Oct. 16, 2020 and uploaded to TX DSHS website, an estimated 950,000 people in the Houston region are 65 or older.
“We do recognize that that people are going be frustrated because they want to get in,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, “and they're going find that it's either not available or the lines are busy. I would simply tell you just keep calling.”
At least one south Texas county, Hidalgo County, is offering vaccines first come, first serve. That lessens the digital divide but forces some elderly Texans to wait in a car for hours, only to possibly be turned away.
“The distribution needs to be handled better than what it is right now,” said Shah, because right now, getting some Texans vaccinated is basically a shot in the dark.