By Jan Lee
When Baltimore County resident Irma Pretsfelder learned in early February that the Maryland Department of Health was offering coronavirus vaccines to older seniors, she was ready to sign up.
The 94-year-old, who was born in Germany and immigrated to the United States in the 1950s as a Holocaust survivor, immediately started filling out the application online so she could get an appointment. According to the Health Department’s vaccination schedule, her age and risk for complications from COVID-19 put her ahead of many others to get a vaccine. She was willing to travel as far as she needed.
“I am very anxious to get the shot because my relatives are coming at Passover and last year I was by myself,” Pretsfelder said.
Like many seniors who had to spend the holiday alone, she is eager to get past the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, but she wants to do so safely. She would need the vaccine in order to have her son visit for the holiday.
But she soon discovered that while her age qualified her for getting the vaccine earlier than most, there seemed to be no way to get an appointment. The few vaccine sites that replied to her request for an appointment were fully booked. The majority of the clinics and pharmacies she reached out to never acknowledged her application.
“I think maybe two [locations] answered,” Pretsfelder said. “The rest have not answered at all.”
Because she no longer drives, Pretsfelder arranged to get a ride with another senior who was also trying to get an appointment. The two finally secured appointments for the first vaccines in Timonium, about 20 minutes away from where she lives. Ecstatic, the two booked the appointments for Feb. 15, figuring the ordeal was over.
But a few days before they were due to turn up for the shots, she said they received a notice stating that her shot had been canceled. She said the notice advised her not to turn up for the appointment as she would not be able to receive the vaccine, and there was no suggestion of where to find a new one.
So the two friends went back to the computer and started over. “Both of us tried and tried [to find an appointment],” Pretsfelder said. After three or fours days of searching, they were able to confirm two appointments at the Six Flags mass vaccination site in Bowie, about an hour’s drive away. But their appointment was canceled again because of weather.
The Timonium vaccination site has since rescheduled the Feb. 15 appointment that had been canceled earlier that month. According to Pretsfelder, she received the first vaccine Feb. 23, and with great relief is awaiting the second one, which is due to be given in late March. While she recognizes that cancellations can’t always be helped, Pretsfelder said she wonders if Maryland’s vaccine program could be better organized. She said she recently got a response for a request she had put in weeks earlier. The clinic was writing to tell her that the appointment times were already filled.
The fact that there has been a lag in available vaccines has only compounded the frustration.
“I know there was a shortage of vaccines, but I am the oldest on my street and everybody else has had at least their first, and some have had their second shot,” Pretsfelder said. “So it’s really frustrating to me.”
Pretsfelder is not the only senior that has run into problems getting an appointment.
The state opened its vaccination sites to all phase 1b-eligible residents, which include seniors age 75 and older, on Jan. 18. Almost immediately, seniors began reporting that they were unable to schedule appointments through the online portal. Maryland has since opened vaccinations to phase 1c as well.
Felicia Graber, 80, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Tarnow, Poland, and later immigrated to the U.S. with her family, said one of the greatest obstacles to getting the vaccine was the lack of response from vaccination sites. She said she began applying in late January when the state announced that she could now schedule an appointment.
“You go online, and it tells you to put in your zip code, and they give you a list of places that you can contact. And you contact them and you answer all their questions and then you don’t hear from them,” Graber said.
Graber did eventually manage to get an appointment in Timonium after her granddaughter stepped in to help. She isn’t sure how her granddaughter was able to arrange the appointment, but once Graber and her husband had the first shot, the second was automatically booked for them.
Thankfully, she said, getting the actual shots was a breeze. “It was all very well organized. They had a lot of help. Everybody was extremely helpful.” She noticed that they also had a separate line for people who had difficulty walking or standing.
But getting the appointment scheduled was not straightforward. And getting help online was just as cumbersome.
“I did a thorough search on the computer, and I did not see any place where I could get some help,” Graber said. “So I really don’t know. I was basically clueless what to do.
“They have to find a way that when people put in their applications [they get an answer]. You submit your request and then you don’t hear from them. The best would be that you get a response or at least acknowledge, ‘We received your request. We will keep in touch,’” Graber said, noting that the process is likely even harder for seniors who aren’t comfortable on the internet.
“I don’t know how people who do not have internet, who are not computer savvy … can handle it,” said Graber, who organizes an online group for Holocaust survivors as a volunteer with the Baltimore Jewish Council. “It would be terribly, terribly difficult.”
Before she tried to obtain an appointment online, she had approached her doctor, who told her he was not able to give the vaccine and couldn’t assist with the online process.
“We were fortunate that we were able to receive [the shots],” said Graber, who received the second inoculation last week.
But not all seniors have encountered problems getting their shots. Seniors who live in private communities, like independent living facilities or nursing homes, have, for the most part, experienced little delay and virtually no headaches in submitting paperwork. That’s because the facility handles the application process for them, using records that are already accessible, and then sets up the dates for the mass inoculations.
Martha Weiman, who lives in Edenwald, an independent living facility in Towson, said the vaccinations were coordinated by the facility. Weiman, who is 86, survived the Holocaust in Bolcholt, Germany, and eventually made passage to Britain before settling in Baltimore. To get the vaccine, the residents only had to sign the form stating they wanted it, Weiman said. Everything else was taken care of by the facility, including arranging the inoculations by Walgreen pharmacists.
“Volunteers who live here helped marshal people in and out” during the inoculation. She said the process was even enjoyable. “Everybody got a bag of fresh popcorn to take with them.”
Weiman and her husband received their second shot last week. She said she feels sorry for their kids, who live in the city and are now trying to schedule their own vaccinations online and are having a difficult time.
“They have been on every site imaginable trying to get [an appointment],” Weiman said.
For Leah Ostreicher, 96, who lives in the long-term care facility, Levindale, the vaccination process was simple and straightforward as well. According to her daughter Judy Ostreicher, the facility organized and carried out the vaccinations sometime in January or early February.
But there have been other challenges to deal with as well, Judy Ostreicher said. Not being able to see each other and to visit in person has been hard on both of them, especially at those times when emotional support is needed.
“My mom went through a lot [during] the Holocaust,” Judy Ostreicher said. “She feels like she is in prison right now.”
For Pretsfelder, however, getting the vaccine is the first step to getting her life back to normal. She hopes that others who haven’t had the inoculations will follow through as well, despite the difficulties that they have encountered.
“How else are we going to get rid of this [virus]?” she asked.
She is encouraging others to take the time to apply and get the shots when it’s their turn.
According to Jewish Community Services, there is help available for those who wish to apply but are having problems navigating the online system. The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore is currently partnering with the Baltimore City Health Department and has hired a vaccine outreach coordinator to assist with public inquiries. While the JCS cannot schedule appointments on behalf of the public, it can offer assistance and suggestions for finding and securing appointments in the Baltimore area.
“We are very fortunate to have a coordinated approach to support all our vulnerable older adults including Holocaust survivors in the community,” JCS Executive Director Joan Grayson Cohen said.
Individuals who need assistance or have questions about the current coronavirus vaccination program in Maryland can contact Rozi Rice at (410) 843-7325 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jan Lee is an independent journalist living in Canada who writes on Jewish culture, history, business and the environment.