Lines, waiting lists and hope: New Orleans seniors seize chance for coronavirus vaccine

By MATT SLEDGE | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate | Published: January 5, 2021

Stars and Stripes is making stories on the coronavirus pandemic available free of charge. See other free reports here. Sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter here. Please support our journalism with a subscription.

NEW ORLEANS (Tribune News Service) — For nearly 10 months, senior citizens have missed church services, family gatherings and long-planned vacations in an effort to dodge a deadly virus. On Monday, many of them stood in a line that stretched from a 7th Ward pharmacy out into the street for a chance to reclaim their golden years.

Older Louisianans deluged area pharmacies with calls and visits Monday after Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that a limited number of coronavirus vaccines from Moderna Inc. would be available for people 70 years and older, expanding availability beyond health care workers and people in long-term care facilities.

Amid massive demand, the select group of pharmacies receiving vaccine doses quickly resorted to waiting lists.

Some seniors at the Broad Avenue Pharmacy in New Orleans were frustrated, while others were excited that their day is coming soon.

"Yippee!" said Charles "Toto" Robinson, 72. "Finally, old age is an advantage."

By the end of the day, Broad Avenue had nearly 250 people signed up to receive a vaccine— but only 100 shots to give. So it was that a supply chain that began with the development in East Coast labs of a cutting-edge mRNA vaccine ended in New Orleans with a yellow legal pad. Pharmacist Chi Tran directed seniors to write their names and numbers there so she can call them when doses are available. She expects to deliver her store's first shots on Tuesday morning.

Seniors arrived at the small, independent pharmacy with a mix of motivations. Vivian Buckner, 75, said the vaccine will finally allow her to go to church again. Her last time attending in person came the Sunday before the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Louisiana.

"I've been in my house since March the 8th. No visitors. No Christmas. I just want to be safe," she said.

Underscoring the risk: a close friend and the friend's husband died from COVID-19 in the spring.

She also stays home because "I have no choice," Buckner said with a laugh. Her daughters installed a camera on her door to make sure she doesn't slip out.

When Buckner gets her shot, it won't be her first time participating in a historic vaccination campaign: She was 17 when she got the polio shot.

Some seniors said that getting the vaccine was as much about giving other people some peace of mind as it was for themselves. Robert Lewis, 77, still volunteers several days a week at the Louisiana Symphony Orchestra. He's looking forward to the day when other people don't have to fret about his health.

"People are concerned for your welfare. And I appreciate that," he said.

Meanwhile, Robinson said he was looking forward to visiting Egypt to see the pyramids. He should have been there on Monday, but the pandemic canceled that plan. He's also looking forward to being able to let his guard down around his sons and grandsons, he said.

"We're all aching to get back to hugging and kissing," he said.

News often travels by word of mouth in New Orleans, and Monday was no exception. Lewis said he beelined to the pharmacy after his wife called to tell him it was a distribution spot.

Meanwhile, Ronald Romano and his wife Michele said they heard about Broad Avenue's vaccine cache while they were at CC's Coffee House on Esplanade Avenue grabbing drinks. Someone burst in to announce the news.

The waiting list wasn't too much of a concern for Romano — yet. He doesn't turn 70 until Jan. 14, and he hopes more vaccine will be available by then. But others were left frustrated by the latest hiccups in America's haphazard response to the pandemic.

"What a mess. We're never going to get the shot," said Donna Olsen, 73, as she walked out of the pharmacy. "I'm on a list."

Another senior was met with busy signals and frustration on Monday. John Garcia, a 77-year-old Kenner resident, said he tried calling every pharmacy in Jefferson Parish minutes after the state released a list of distribution points on Monday.

"None available, all filled. Something is very wrong!" Garcia said in an email.

He believes seniors have not been prioritized high enough during the vaccination process. Although they only make up a fraction of the cases, seniors over 70 have accounted for 5,197 of the state's 7,585 COVID-19 deaths, according to state data.

"I am over the age that is most vulnerable and sure don't need to take chances," Garcia said.

Older seniors with military service records had more luck at the Veterans Affairs hospital on South Galvez Street. The VA has its own supply of vaccine from the federal government. After vaccinating its employees and inpatients, the hospital moved on to jabbing the arms of older veterans whose age places them at high risk.

Among the veterans receiving their shots on Monday was 97-year-old Robert Emmett Stanley, who survived a kamikaze attack that sunk his destroyer during the Battle of Okinawa during World War II. He was the 2,503rd person to get vaccinated at the VA.

Nurse Kelly Bell gave Stanley's right arm a quick jab and she was done. Within weeks he will have immunity against the latest challenge in his long life.

"I barely felt it," he told her.

"Yeah, I'm a good sticker," Bell replied.

Stanley was glad that the dwindling group of World War II veterans can finally be vaccinated. "We don't have many left," he said.

Even after they get their vaccinations, several seniors in line at the Broad Avenue Pharmacy on Monday said they don't expect to make major changes. It will be weeks before they have the vaccine's full protection and months before the community at large can join them.

"My bubble will continue until Jazz Fest comes back around. I will be out at Jazz Fest — with a mask," said Elizabeth Shannon, a 72-year-old artist who waited in line on Monday. "There are just so many unknowns."

Although the vaccines are highly effective at preventing people from coming down with COVID-19 symptoms, scientists don't know whether they prevent people from spreading the virus.

And despite his longing to see the pyramids, Robinson said he won't be on the first plane to Cairo.

"Psychologically, it's going to free me up. But I don't think that I'm going to travel right away. We're really entering a new phase of a long-term problem," Robinson said. "I'm not gonna go crazy."

(c)2021 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
Visit The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate at www.nola.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.