By ERIN ROLL
The elderly were among the first groups eligible in New Jersey for coronavirus vaccines. But some seniors in Montclair still say they’re having trouble getting appointments, even with local efforts specifically targeted at helping them.
Among the challenges: Some don’t have easy access to computers or the internet, or the technical aptitude to use them. County and state registration sites get booked up quickly. And not all seniors drive, making transportation an obstacle.
“It’s challenging even for people who are computer-savvy,” said Ellie Bagli, of the township’s Senior Citizens Advisory Committee, which advises the Township Council and serves as a liaison for Montclair’s seniors.
Additionally, Bagli said, the vaccine site at the former Kmart building in West Orange — assigned to Montclair residents — is one of the two busiest of the four sites Essex County runs. The other, she said, is in Livingston.
Essex County has a call center for residents who are having difficulty making appointments or using the internet, at 973-877-8456. County spokesman Anthony Puglisi suggested calling around 8 a.m., when new appointments open up.
“There is a heavy demand to make appointments because the number of available doses is still much smaller than the number of people who want them. This is a nationwide problem,” Puglisi said. “We have 35 people in our call center who are there to assist people in making appointments. Residents just need to be a little patient and keep contacting the call center.”
In Montclair, the township’s COVID-19 Recovery Task Force has launched the Gateway to Vaccination program, which reaches out to seniors who do not have internet access, helps them make vaccination appointments and sets them up with transportation through Ryde4Life, the EZRide service that Montclair has been contracting with to transport seniors during the pandemic.
Ann Lippel, a Senior Citizens Advisory Committee member who also sits on the COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, said the program was started so that it would take the stress off of the county’s call center phone line. It can be reached at 973-433-5826.
The program is funded by an approximately $4,000 grant the Montclair Center Business Improvement District awarded to the township’s library, and that the library then passed along to the Gateway program, said BID Executive Director Jason Gleason.
The task force sent out 728 “snail mail” letters in mid-March to senior residents with low access to email, broadband internet service and cellphones, as identified through census data. The recipients were asked about what internet-connected devices they have in their homes. The letters also asked if the recipients would need rides to and from vaccine clinics.
As of this week, Lippel said, the campaign had received replies from 10% of the letter recipients. The information provided by the residents about their vaccine and transportation needs is then passed on to the township, as well as the county for its outreach.
At a presentation given at a March 16 council meeting, task force members Shante Palmer and David Pascrell said 82 percent of respondents to the Gateway letters live in Montclair’s Fourth Ward.
Aging in Montclair, the Montclair NAACP, Montclair Mutual Aid, Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless and Toni’s Kitchen all have helped Gateway with its outreach.
Gail Abramowitz, a Montclair resident and a volunteer at the county’s West Orange vaccine center, said at the March 16 council meeting many seniors had not been able to make appointments to get the vaccine due to availability.
“I understand that Gateway is attempting to assist people in getting the appointments. However, I am also aware that Mountainside hospital is now providing vaccinations to people outside its hospital community. And I’m wondering if the council has entertained the idea of trying to hook up the seniors with Mountainside hospital, and if it hasn’t, why not?” Abramowitz said.
Mayor Sean Spiller didn’t specifically address the question about Mountainside at the meeting, but said the township Health Department had received allocations of vaccines from the federal and state governments, and that the township will be vaccinating homebound seniors.
Township spokesperson Katya Wowk has not yet responded to a message from Montclair Local asking if the township had approached Mountainside about helping seniors. The township, school district and hospital have an ongoing partnership to get vaccines to teachers.
The Health Department has been conducting vaccination programs at multiunit buildings in town. Clinics have been conducted at 530 Valley Road, Bellaire House, 5 Roosevelt Place, 10 Crestmont Road and the Rockcliffe.
“I know that the effort here was very successful and, if there had been a greater supply of the vaccine, more people would have participated,” said Susan Craig, who lives in one of the buildings where a clinic was conducted.
Councilman Bob Russo said the township administered vaccines at the building where he lives, and the program was beneficial.
Spiller said, “So we have been directly utilizing, through our allocations, programs to get vaccines into the arms of our seniors.”
Township Manager Timothy Stafford said that if seniors can get to the county site, they are urged to do so, since the county has significantly more vaccine than the township does.
Essex County residents can get to county-run vaccine sites through the Special Transportation Program, a county-run bus service that operates for seniors and people with disabilities. Spiller said the county is transporting about 600 seniors to the West Orange site a week. Seniors can book rides by calling 973-618-1280.
In Montclair, seniors can also book rides to vaccine sites through Ryde4Life by calling 201-939-4242, ext. 4.
Puglisi also noted that all of the county’s vaccine venues were located along NJ Transit bus routes.
At the council meeting, Craig said having a vaccine site available is a moot point for many seniors.
”It’s obvious to say that the site is available, and vaccinations are available, but if you can’t get there, it really doesn’t happen for you,” she said.
Russo concurred that transportation is an issue for many people.
“There’s still a lot of people that want to go to Kmart, or they haven’t gotten to it yet and they still need to be transported,” he said.
Another senior, who did not give his name, told council members internet connectivity was an issue and asked whether the township could use federal money to improve access to those in need.
Spiller said “all options will be on the table” once American Rescue Plan funds are received. The township is expected to get $3.8 million from the federal coronavirus relief effort.