In late January, healthcare providers in remote Aroostook County, Maine needed help getting the word out about the COVID-19 vaccine to its 70,000 residents — about a quarter of whom are elderly. They knew exactly where to go: the Aroostook Agency on Aging. Just a week after reaching out to the agency, a team of 25 volunteers were manning phones, helping residents register for shots.

headshot of Joy Barresi Saucier
Joy Barresi Saucier of the Aroostook Agency on Aging

“Many of the individuals may have an email or may use the computer, but to actually go through the process of online registering is overwhelming,” Aroostook Agency on Aging Director Joy Barresi Saucier told McKnight’s Home Care Daily.

Vaccination barriers  

While access to the COVID-19 vaccine is expanding nationwide, there are still significant barriers to vaccinating people in rural areas — where a little less than 1 in 4 Americans live. For the elderly and homebound, there are added obstacles. 

Long Beach, CA-based health insurer SCAN Health Plan found 31% of rural family caregivers it recently polled said they wouldn’t take an older adult in their care for a vaccination. That’s about double the refusal rate of caregivers in urban areas.

“I think people who live in rural communities are often independent-minded,” SCAN Health Plan Senior Vice President Eve Gelb told McKnight’s Home Care Daily.  “They figure they live a different way than people in urban communities do, so they don’t need to worry as much. They’re not in dense, urban environments where everyone is breathing the same air.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 10% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated to date. The numbers are higher for people 65 and older, of which 30% have been fully vaccinated. 

Still, another study by Texas A&M’s School of Public Health found that 31% of the American public don’t intend to get vaccinated. Assistant Professor Timothy Callaghan who led the research said improving the vaccination rate “will require targeted health communication strategies.” 

Trusted sources of information 

Eve Gelb of the SCAN Health Plan

Gelb thinks that communication should be led by health providers that patients trust — such as physicians, pharmacists or nurses. “We had a listening session with some African American members and they trust nurses,” she said. “In their communities, nurses are the trusted source of information.” 

Help is also coming from the insurance industry. Last week, the White House announced a pilot program with health insurers to get their most high-risk customers vaccinated. The goal is to get two million people 65 and older vaccinated within the next 100 days. 

Taylor Laabs, spokesman for Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, told McKnight’s Home Care Daily each market will use different methods to identify and reach out to clients. Most will be helping set up appointments, answer questions about the vaccine and coordinate services — like transportation — to overcome barriers to getting vaccinated. 

In Aroostook County, Maine, local hospitals recently started providing in-home vaccinations to seniors when they have additional vaccine left over at the end of each day. Barresi-Saucier says the joint effort by local healthcare providers and her agency are breaking down many vaccination barriers.

“It’s really just provided peace of mind knowing that someone is helping them,” says Barrresi Saucier.