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The COVID vaccine call center is designed to help those get infoy who lack access to a computer. But the call center won't be manned until Jan. 25. NorthJersey.com

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In between caring for her 53-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy, Jennie Nuzzo has spent three to four hours a day for nearly a week trying in vain to make an appointment to get COVID-19 vaccines for her family.

Unlike many seniors, Nuzzo, 77, has both the eyesight and computer literacy to use an iPad to navigate the online portals set up by the state and vaccine providers.

The problem is she's competing with more than 4 million other New Jerseyans whom Gov. Phil Murphy made immediately eligible last week — despite fewer than 200,000 doses being currently available in the state.  

"He created a problem he didn't have," said Nuzzo, of Butler. "If there is a shortage, why did he make the demand so much greater?"

Many elderly New Jerseyans such as Nuzzo face a frustrating irony: The system created to vaccinate the most vulnerable is almost impossible to navigate by the most vulnerable.

As the U.S. passed 400,000 COVID deaths on Tuesday, the demand to be vaccinated has created a sense of desperation among New Jerseyans, who have seen more than 20,000 fellow residents succumb to the virus since March.

Nowhere is that felt more than among the elderly, considering that 80% of the state's COVID-related deaths have been among those 65 years and older.

But the path to inoculation in New Jersey is a decidedly digital one.

Registering for the vaccine and booking appointments requires access to the internet, the ability to navigate webpages, an email address and, in some cases, the ability to get a text message — an array of devices and skills that many elderly New Jerseyans either don't have or struggle with.

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They also find themselves lacking the prioritization they once thought they would have, and competing with a larger vaccination pool that inevitably includes more tech-savvy people.

The 1.5 million New Jerseyans 65 years and older found themselves lumped in with 1 million residents with chronic medical conditions and 2 million smokers when Murphy made them all eligible to get the vaccine last Wednesday.

Murphy said during a Tuesday briefing that he doesn't regret expanding vaccine access to so many people so fast, even though he says repeatedly that the greatest problem with vaccine distribution is that the demand far outweighs the 100,000 doses sent every week from the federal stockpile.

Some seniors are so confused by the internet-dependent system that they have emailed NorthJersey.com thinking they were registering for the vaccine with the state Department of Health. 

Some seniors said their peers should have been staggered in with the most elderly, who were allowed to go first. Connecticut decided to hold off vaccinating 65- to 74-year-olds and instead opened vaccinations this week only to those 75 and older.

"Our computer skills are poor, our mobility is limited; consequently the sites are now closed and we cannot be vaccinated," said Sandra Miller, 85, of South Orange, who has tried unsuccessfully to book an appointment. "Each day surprises me with another obstacle for those of us in our later years."

Because the state and local health care systems rely heavily on the internet to pre-register and book appointments, doing so often falls on the children of the elderly, including Alexander Gombach of Allendale. 

Gombach said the portals have been "incredibly difficult and confusing" for his 84-year-old mother. Gombach He tries to navigate the web to find an appointment, but so far has had no luck.

"I don’t know how seniors who don’t have assistance are expected to do this," he said. "The online registrations seem pointless if we have to just go register directly ourselves at a vaccination site. The state's effort to reduce bureaucracy created confusion instead." 

New Jersey officials hope a phone line — 855-568-0545 — unveiled Tuesday will help seniors better navigate the system. But right now it is automated and directs callers to a state webpage to find vaccine providers. Live agents won't start working that line until Monday, Jan. 25, operating from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

And many seniors question why the phone line wasn't set up earlier, considering that the administration had months to prepare for the vaccine rollout.

"They knew for months that the vaccine was coming," said Mary Purzycki, 77, of Parsippany. "Why did they not think to make this accessible to everyone?"

Purzycki is computer-literate, but many of her neighbors are not. She said a 90-year-old friend without a computer drove to the state's vaccine mega-site in Rockaway to try to sign up, with no luck.

Purzycki said the state's phone system soon will be inundated with calls and suggested that each county launch its own call center. 

"Most everyone has a phone," she said. "Not everyone has a computer."

Laura Moore, 71, a guidance counselor at St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale, spent four days last week trying to book an appointment, to no avail.

"They should never have opened up the eligible pool until they were able to vaccinate those of us who are elderly and at risk," she said.

Sandra Miller and her husband, Don, 88, are now lumped in with younger seniors vying for the vaccine — something they consider unfair, since the older you are, the more susceptible you are to the virus.

"Again, we will follow directions, isolate, not even see the grandkids, mask, wash the hands," Sandra Miller said. "But what a shame New Jersey has abandoned us."

Like Miller, Jennie Nuzzo feels like giving up most days and just continue to isolate for as long as possible. But she wants a return to normalcy so her disabled daughter, Joann, can return to the day program that invigorated her. 

"I'm trying my best, but it's taking a toll," she said of her search. "I just don't know where to turn."

Scott Fallon covers the environment for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about how New Jersey’s environment affects your health and well-being,  please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: fallon@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @newsfallon 

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