Science

Is A Digital Divide Hindering COVID-19 Vaccine Access For Seniors?

I generally write about weather and climate topics in Forbes, but every now and then, I venture into other science topics based on my life experiences. This is one of those moments. My mother is in her late seventies and falls within the phase 1a category to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Weeks ago she expressed frustration that she was having trouble getting an appointment or even getting through by phone to various entities administering the virus. My wife and I took on the task of assisting her in the past few weeks, and something became very apparent to me. There is likely a “digital immigrant” bias that may be limiting access to vaccine appointment for seniors. I’ll explain.

I spent the good part of an afternoon calling phone numbers listed for vaccine appointments earlier this week. A significant percentage of them directed me to a website or email address for further information, appointment scheduling, and waitlists. Here’s the problem. I have no particular aversion to website interactions or conducting business via emails. My generation falls somewhere between “digital immigrants” and “digital natives.” Today’s youth were raised using smartphones, laptops, tablets, gaming platforms and streaming services. I will never forget when my son, a toddler at the time, started scrolling up on a computer screen with his finger in the Apple Store. It was natural to him. My kids are “digital natives.”

Ironically, many seniors now eligible in most states for the coronavirus vaccine are “digital immigrants.” I first learned of the concept of digital immigrants several years ago while reading an 2001 essay by Marc Prensky. He wrote, “Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants.” This describes my mother perfectly. She knows how to use the Internet, email, and Facebook. However, she is not comfortable navigating processes that deviate from simple instructions nor providing personal information online.

As someone savvy in the use of the Internet, I found many of the vaccine websites or booking sites to be slow, confusing, or cumbersome. In those moments, I was thankful that my wife and I were available to assist my mother with the process. But what about the seniors who may not someone to assist them? Sandee Lamotte wrote at CNN.com in January, “In Florida, where 4.2 million people over 65 reside, Rebecca Smith recently huddled over three computers trying to schedule a vaccine appointment for her parents, Murray and Toby Simon, who are in their late 70s.” The bad news is the website crashed before the 2 pm availability time issued by the county. My wife and I experience very sluggish or intermittent access to many of the vaccine information sites, and we have one of the fastest Internet connections available.

Of additional concern to me, African Americans significantly lag behind in COVID-19 vaccinations. As an African American, I am well aware of the mistrust of large federal vaccine programs within our community because of the Tuskegee Experiments or the recent death of Hank Aaron (not vaccine related). However, the “digital immigrant” and access problem are even more acute within African American populations according to Pew Research Center studies so that could be an issue also.

If you know a senior citizen, stop and reach out to see if they need assistance finding the vaccine. Your kindness might save a life.


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