More than 80% of seniors are vaccinated. That’s ‘not safe enough.’
By Paula Span
Dr. Won Lee began her initial visit to a new homebound patient, Almeta Trotter, last month by asking about her life, her health and how she was managing in her apartment in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, shared with her longtime partner and a parakeet.
Eventually Lee, the medical director of the Geriatrics Home Care Program at Boston Medical Center, raised a key question. “I said, ‘What are your feelings about vaccination against COVID?’ ”
“I heard that I shouldn’t get it because I take blood thinners” for a heart problem, replied Trotter, 77.
Not true. Whether Trotter had misunderstood what she’d heard on television news or had been misinformed, “I told her I had many other patients with the same condition on the exact same medication who have been vaccinated with no problems,” Lee said.
When Trotter agreed to the shots — in part because “the news was talking about all these people dying,” in part because her two daughters had gotten them — Lee dispatched a nurse to vaccinate her at home. She’s scheduled for a second dose this month.
One down and — of the program’s 563 frail homebound patients, most in their 80s and older — about 80 to go.
The effort to vaccinate the nation’s over-65 population represents both a success story and a source of intense frustration. It’s the age group with the highest rate: 92% have gotten at least one shot and 82% are fully vaccinated. Yet so many remain unprotected.
“It’s pretty darn good,” said William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University. “But we clearly need to do more in this extraordinarily vulnerable population. They are not safe enough.” With seniors at far higher risk for severe illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19, he had hoped to see their vaccination rate top 90% by now.
Nearly 10 million older people are without full immunization. That not only endangers them, but provides opportunities for the coronavirus to keep mutating in the bodies of those with weak immune systems. It could also complicate the planned distribution of third shots.
Last winter, when the vaccines became available, the older cohort got a head start.
“They were the first in line,” said David Grabowski, a health care policy researcher at Harvard Medical School. Seniors were among those who received priority for appointments, while a federal program brought vaccine clinics directly to nursing homes. And many were inclined to roll up their sleeves.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed this population’s vaccination rates soaring through the spring, then hitting a plateau. Among 65- to 74-year-olds, 80% were fully vaccinated on July 1, creeping gradually to almost 84% by Sept. 1. Among those over 75, about 76% were fully vaccinated on July 1 and about 79% now.
Those numbers conceal enormous regional variations. Dane County, Wisconsin, which includes Madison, has reached almost universal vaccination for those over 65. But only 75% are fully vaccinated in Los Angeles County.
In New York City, rates for those over age 65 range from 80% on Staten Island to just 67% in Brooklyn. The rate falls below 50% in several Alabama counties and below 40% in stretches of New Mexico.
Even older people who want the shots can face substantial obstacles. Early on, with local health authorities operating mass vaccination sites, “some older adults couldn’t manage the online registration, or couldn’t get to a center,” Grabowski said.
Months later, with vaccines widely available, people who are disabled, frail or cognitively impaired may still struggle to access the first or second shot.
That’s particularly true for the homebound, defined as people who leave their homes once a week or less. Their numbers have sharply increased during the pandemic, according to a survey in JAMA Internal Medicine published last month.
Among respondents over 70, about 5% were homebound from 2011-19. In 2020 — likely because of COVID-related public health recommendations — the proportion jumped to 13%. More than one-quarter of those didn’t have a cellphone; half didn’t have a computer.
But access isn’t the issue for Lee’s patients; in February, nurses and doctors started bringing vaccines to their doors. Home medical practices like UCSF Care at Home in San Francisco and Bloom Healthcare in suburban Denver have also vaccinated their patients. About 1,000 such programs serve homebound seniors across the country, the American Academy of Home Care Medicine estimates.
Yet even after extended discussions, 14% of the Boston Medical Center program’s homebound patients have either delayed or refused immunization.
“Families said, ‘My grandmother doesn’t go out of the house,’ ” Lee said. “But even if you don’t go out, a family member or a caregiver comes in and can bring illness.” Before the vaccines arrived, her practice lost 28 patients to COVID, she said, and “it was heartbreaking.”
Why the foot-dragging among the population that, as Grabowski put it, has the most to gain?
The political divide that has led many Americans to resist vaccination is smaller in the older population than in younger groups, but still exists. A July survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that among those over 65, only 3% of Democrats said they would “definitely not” get vaccinated, compared with 13% of Republicans.
Where seniors get information also plays a role, according to a recent study by health services researchers at the University of Iowa, using a national survey of Medicare beneficiaries from late 2020.
At that time, when vaccines were unavailable but imminent, 13% of respondents said they definitely or probably would not get vaccinated, the survey found, citing primarily fear of side effects and mistrust of government. About one-quarter were unsure.
Now, with the country about to start mobilizing for third shots, “I’m worried about the potential of a free-for-all,” Grabowski said. “Will the effort to give the booster crowd out the people who need their first or second shot? Will there be lines and schedules that make it harder” for seniors to get vaccinated?
Vaccine mandates from employers and schools will not affect most older adults. Bridging this particular vaccination gap will take continuing efforts by federal and local health officials — bringing vaccines to individual homes and neighborhood senior centers, providing transportation to pharmacies or clinics, revisiting nursing homes and including their staffs, enabling primary care doctors to offer vaccines in their offices.
Trotter, for one, seems glad to be getting her shots. The first dose of the Moderna vaccine, she reported, caused no side effects at all.
“My arm didn’t even hurt,” she said.