LOS ANGELES — On a chilly January afternoon, 86-year-old Selda Hollander sat on the grass next to a baseball field in Encino.
Though eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, Hollander hadn’t been able to navigate the appointment system online or over the phone. She had heard about the unofficial standby line at the Balboa Sports Complex and decided to try her luck.
“I can’t figure out if it’s worth it,” she said, shivering slightly as she hugged her knees against the cold. “I’m waiting for the vaccine, but I can get sick because of the weather.”
Hollander is one of countless seniors who are struggling to navigate the region’s rocky rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine. Those over 65 have discovered that being eligible for the vaccine is one thing; actually receiving it is another.
The system set up by Los Angeles County seems, in many ways, to be a young person’s game: It can take social media skills, technology savvy, reliable transportation and even physical stamina to obtain one of the coveted shots. That leaves some of the county’s most vulnerable residents at a serious disadvantage.
“Age is an equity factor, and it should be looked at that way,” said Fred Buzo, associate state director at AARP California, who has worked on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s community vaccine advisory committee since its inception. “Especially when it comes to this crisis.”
According to data from the California Department of Public Health, state residents over the age of 70 who contract COVID-19 are 24 times more likely to die of the virus than those who are younger.
And while Latino and Black communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, Buzo said, “age was really the only factor that cut across all demographics.”
Yet Angelenos over 65 cited a number of barriers between themselves and the vaccine, technology among the most prominent. Many residents — and their children and grandchildren — report spending hours trying to secure appointments through the clunky online portal. Calls to the telephone appointment line often go unanswered and unreturned.
“I had to sign my grandmother up by logging in to the county website at 2 a.m. when traffic to the site was lower,” said Jamie Tijerina, who lives north of downtown.
Tijerina said she will be driving her grandmother to her appointment, but that she has been told she will need to present a QR code upon arrival, something that requires a cellphone or a least a decent printer.
Donna Spratt, an 82-year-old Cerritos resident waiting in the vaccine line at East L.A.’s Lincoln Park, said she couldn’t figure out how to use the online system at all.
“Once you’re retired, you kind of lose contact with these things,” Spratt said. She had to call on her daughter for help securing an appointment, and on her son the drive her the 20-some miles to get there.
But successfully securing an appointment is only one part of the challenge. The five county-run mass vaccination sites are drive-thru only, which means seniors who cannot drive have to rely on a friend or family member to access the sites, or risk the cost and exposure of hailing a ride-share car or using public transportation.
During a Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis said she has received calls from several seniors who couldn’t get to vaccine appointments because of transportation limitations. She spoke with one 67-year-old who said he took three buses to get to his appointment at L.A. County-USC Medical Center.
Solis is directing the county to work out an agreement with municipal and regional transit operators to provide direct access to the vaccine sites.
But even at the sites, accessibility is an issue. The city-run vaccination site at Dodger Stadium is also drive-thru only, and numerous residents have reported spending as long as four hours in the line. Andrea Garcia, a spokeswoman for Mayor Eric Garcetti, said there are portable bathrooms at the site, but several seniors said they couldn’t find them.
“I inched along for two hours,” one Eagle Rock resident wrote on Facebook. “My appointment was long past, and the call of nature forced me to give up. It has been impossible to get another appointment.”
Another said she considered buying an adult diaper for the wait.
“This is a huge issue for women, and particularly women and men over a certain age,” she said, adding that it caused so much anxiety that she considered canceling her appointment.
Walk-up sites, which include community clinics and sites run by the Los Angeles Fire Department, are not without pitfalls either. At the Lincoln Park and Crenshaw Christian Center clinics, it is not uncommon to see streams of cars circling around hunting for spaces. Some seniors said they had to park several blocks away and walk.
“It’s clownish,” 65-year-old Max Tolkoff said of the city’s rollout to seniors thus far. Tolkoff underwent several back surgeries in the last year, and he was using a rolling walker to get through the line at Lincoln Park one windy afternoon.
“Hopefully, they’ll smooth it out in a couple of weeks,” he said.
AARP’s Buzo said part of the reason the rollout has been so challenging for residents over 65 is a lack of transparency about supply levels and appointment availability. He said there’s a strong need for some baseline of consistency.
The “checkerboard approach,” he said, has created substantial confusion, particularly when the state and county were at odds over which tiers and age groups were eligible for their shots. He was pleased that the state will be moving to an age-based rollout, and said seniors’ concerns should continue to be factored in.
But the lack of clear information has created fertile ground for rumors, and social media has become as much a source of information as most official channels. On NextDoor and in neighborhood Facebook groups, people swap tips for how to secure appointments.
One Bay Area resident named Michelle, who asked that her last name not be used, said the only way she was able to secure an appointment for her parents in L.A. was by setting up a Twitter alert on her phone.
After scrambling, Michelle found them slots at a walk-up site in San Fernando, which she initially thought would be safer because it was outdoors.
“Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, even in L.A. it gets cold, sometimes it rains — what did I just set my parents up for?” she said. “When you start to think about all the logistics, it seems impractical.”
That seniors should be called upon to gather together in public, often for hours at a time, is counterintuitive to all pandemic guidance thus far, she said.
Michelle tried calling the Public Health Department and the Fire Department to ask about conditions at the site. Her mother, 85, relies on a portable oxygen tank, and she wanted to know if the site would have an extra supply on hand in case she ran out while waiting. She never heard back.
Back at Balboa, Hollander contemplated the meaning of the task at hand while she shivered in the grass.
“You feel, at my age, is it even worth living?” she asked. Her husband died in July, and even though he didn’t have COVID-19, she wasn’t allowed to visit him in the hospital. Their dog died a week later from grief, she said.
“I can’t go out because of [the pandemic], I can’t do things,” she said. “Only eight people were allowed at my husband’s funeral.”
Despite the inhospitable conditions in the line, Hollander said her faith was slowly restored throughout the day. A young man offered her his folding chair. Later, someone offered her a blanket.
Nearly five hours after arriving at the site, Hollander was pulled out of the brisk cold and into a red brick building. She sat down and rolled up her sleeve. She got her shot.
Getting the second one, she hoped, wouldn’t be so exhausting.