Desperately Seeking Septuagenarian: Vaccine Buddy System Sets Off Old Rush

BOSTON — Gloria Clark of Malden, Mass., woke up on Thursday with one goal and one goal only: To find herself an unvaccinated person over the age of 75.

She started with an ad on Craigslist, but responses were sluggish, so she started knocking on doors. The 89-year-old two doors down wasn’t interested. An 80-year-old neighbor wasn’t home, and typically napped in the afternoon, but Ms. Clark was undaunted.

“I’ll catch her tomorrow morning,” said Ms. Clark, 72, a retired high school math teacher. “I’ll find someone. I know I will.”

This week, Massachusetts launched a first-in-the-nation experiment, offering vaccinations to younger people who accompany older people to mass vaccination sites.

The plan was intended to ease access problems for older people, who have struggled to book online appointments and travel to sports stadiums. Right away, it met with criticism from state legislators and some public health experts, who said it could result in scarce doses going to young, healthy people.

It also gave rise to an unusual online market, as entrepreneurial Massachusetts residents sought to forge caregiving relationships at top speed.

“I have a great driving record and a very clean Toyota Camry,” said one person in an advertisement on Craigslist. “I can pay $100 cash as well. I am a friendly conversationalist and will allow you to choose the music and show me all the pictures of your grandkids!”

A Boston-area graduate student offered “$200+ for the privilege of transporting a Massachusetts resident to his or her first or second vaccine appointment.” Another advertisement mentioned that the journey to the vaccination would be taken in a Lexus.

Other inquiries were made more delicately.

Jean Trounstine, an author and professor who lives in Tewksbury, Mass., said she received a phone call from a friend who asked if she could accompany her to a vaccine appointment. (Ms. Trounstine is 74, it turned out, and no.) “I think she’s just going to look around for 75-year-olds,” she said. “That just blew me away.”

Ms. Trounstine heard about the companion program on the car radio on Wednesday, and “flipped out,” as she put it, because it struck her as yet another way for people with resources to jump the line.

“I’m waiting to get the vaccine patiently, I’m not pulling any strings,” she said. “It’s just kind of a slap in the face to someone like me, who isn’t going to go hunting around for a 75-year-old.”

ImagePeople received Covid-19 vaccines on Thursday at a vaccination center at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass.
Credit…Steven Senne/Associated Press

At a Thursday news conference, Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledged that some were approaching the program opportunistically, and warned seniors to be cautious about offers of help from strangers.

“You should only reach out to somebody that you know or trust to bring you as your companion, whether that’s a child, a companion, a spouse, a neighbor or a caregiver,” he said. “Don’t take calls or offers from people you don’t know well or trust, and never share your personal information with anyone.”

Public health experts offered divergent opinions on the companion program, a concept that was not widely discussed before it was rolled out.

Massachusetts is trying to crank up vaccination rates after lagging early in the process, when the state focused narrowly on frontline health care workers and care facilities and many doses sat in freezers unused.

About 10.4 percent of the state’s population has received at least one dose.

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Andrew Lover, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said the plan would accelerate vaccinations by providing an “extra push” for older people who live alone.

“There’s definitely potential for people to game the system, but my assumption is it’s a reasonably small number,” he said. “The more people we can get vaccinated the better, in the grand scheme of public health, and we are more than happy to accept that small problematic fraction.”

Others worried that the policy allows young, healthy people doses that are in short supply.

“What I’m worried about is that there are lots of people in their 70s — 74-year-olds — who can’t get a vaccine, but there are 22-year-olds who are perfectly healthy who are going to get them,” said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “I don’t know that I have seen large mega-sites sitting empty because elderly people weren’t showing up. If that was the problem, this would be a good solution.”

There were also complaints from lawmakers, who, in a letter to Governor Baker, called for the companion program to be halted, saying the system further amplifies the advantage of wealthy families with working cars and free time. Meanwhile, vulnerable residents between 65 and 75 have found themselves pushed further back in line, said State Representative Mike Connolly, who represents parts of Cambridge and Somerville.

“There are people saying you can get $250 and a new toaster if you just let an individual bring you to go get a vaccine,” he said. “I find the whole thing really astounding, and I don’t think I’m alone.”

It wasn’t all criticism, though. Many people in their late 70s this week contemplated their sudden possession of a golden ticket, and discussed among themselves which friend most deserved or needed it.

Image

Credit…Joseph Prezioso/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Margaret Bibbo, 66, a church secretary and cancer survivor, had brought in an elderly friend without expecting to be vaccinated herself, and when a doctor offered her a shot as a companion she initially refused.

“I said, ‘I would love it, but I’m not going to jump in front of anybody,’” she said. “Her quote was, ‘You’re just as important as anyone else, you took the time to bring this woman here without expecting the injection. We can take care of you.’ It was precious.”

Driving home, she said, she was flooded with gratitude and relief.

“I was blessed yesterday, totally blessed,” she said.

For Ms. Clark, it made perfect sense. Her friends in long-term care facilities have all been vaccinated, “but if you’re like me, and live in your own home, you’re stuck.”

At 72, she is healthy enough to drive some her neighbors to colonoscopies, and public-spirited enough to work the polls at special elections. “Someone’s out there who needs the help,” she said. “It’s just that they don’t know where to go.”

After long, gray months of waiting — “there’s only so much you can clean your house,” she remarked — the possibility of change had thrown her into high gear.

“I look wonderful, I actually put on clothes today,” she said. “I’m off to the Caribbean as soon as I get this done.”

Will Wright contributed reporting from New York.

It also gave rise to an unusual online market, as entrepreneurial Massachusetts residents sought to forge caregiving relationships at top speed.

“I have a great driving record and a very clean Toyota Camry,” said one person in an advertisement on Craigslist. “I can pay $100 cash as well. I am a friendly conversationalist and will allow you to choose the music and show me all the pictures of your grandkids!”

A Boston-area graduate student offered “$200+ for the privilege of transporting a Massachusetts resident to his or her first or second vaccine appointment.” Another advertisement mentioned that the journey to the vaccination would be taken in a Lexus.

Other inquiries were made more delicately.

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