In New York City this week, public health care workers are fanning out to all five boroughs to give the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccination to about 1,200 seniors in their homes. The effort began a week ago in two neighborhoods in Queens and Brooklyn.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed the effort during a press conference.

“A team has to go in and they need to stay to make sure someone reacts well to the shot,” he said. “So it takes a lot of time and energy.” 

New York City’s effort to vaccinate its most vulnerable residents might not be possible without the help of its largest private insurer: Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield. When the New York City Public Health Department launched the effort to vaccinate the homebound, Empire BCBS immediately forwarded the names of 650 members it identified as homebound. 

But that’s not all. Empire BCBS also spearheaded an earlier effort to get vaccination appointments for long-term care members — among the company’s most vulnerable clients.

David Ackman, M.D., Empire BCBS Medicaid Medical Director

“I think we were able to make appointments to over 100 members. Not only did we make the appointments, we helped get them there by telling them that we would reimburse them for a cab ride. These are people who might otherwise not have been vaccinated,” Empire BCBS Medicaid Medical Director David Ackman, M.D., told McKnight’s Home Care Daily. 

Vaccine access issues

While the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine is expanding across the U.S., getting it into the arms of seniors is still a problem. Many homebound seniors have mobility issues, making it difficult to get to vaccination sites. Others are having trouble registering for vaccinations online. 

William Greenough, M.D., professor emeritus of infectious disease and geriatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told McKnight’s Home Care Daily he had trouble navigating an online reservation system and walked to a pharmacy to sign up his wife, his sister and himself for vaccinations. 

“There is a big chasm between the computer and the homebound at the present time and it’s going to take shoe leather to get (vaccinations) done,” said Greenough. 

Campaigns reach at-risk communities 

In an effort to vaccinate seniors, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (BCBSA) launched the Vaccine Community Connectors pilot earlier this month. It aims to vaccinate 2 million people 65 and older in at-risk communities. Insurers will answer questions about the COVID-19 vaccine, help seniors register for shots and coordinate services — including transportation to vaccination sites. 

Empire BCBS’s efforts to get members vaccinated began before the Vaccine Community Connectors program started. Ackman said the company is expanding its plan to help members navigate the reservations system, calling the efforts essential to control the pandemic.

“Everyone either has had the experience or knows someone who’s had the experience of trying to find an appointment,” said Ackman. “You can imagine the people who are best able to do this are people with good internet connection and the time to find an appointment. A lot of our members don’t have that and that’s why we need to help them.”