What it was like trying to get my elderly parents a Covid-19 vaccine

Carmen Sutherlin's parents, Bonita and Jerome Sims, in 2017

Carmen Sutherlin works in marketing and has spent over 25 years in the automotive industry. She lives in Michigan with her husband and two children. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)When I heard that residents over 75 would soon be eligible to receive their vaccine in Maricopa County, where my parents live in Arizona, I immediately started investigating how to get them appointments. My mom assured me that they would hear from "someone" to let them know when they could come in, but given the stories of vaccine shortages, I knew this was something that they should not wait for.

Carmen Sutherlin
My dad is 81 and my mom is 74, and they are fairly computer-savvy, but I wanted to make sure they followed the right steps to get an appointment, so I stepped in to help. But navigating the system proved to be a challenge. I can't imagine what seniors without someone to help them figure out the vaccine scheduling process go through; the online systems, hold times for phone calls, waking early to try to get appointments could make anyone frustrated, especially the senior community that so desperately needs to be vaccinated.
    Add to this the situation of an African American family encountering these complications after so much discussion has been centered on the distrust that the Black community has about the Covid-19 vaccine -- given the history of medical racism, including the lack of access to quality care compared to Whites and historical events like the Tuskegee syphilis study -- and how to build trust and ensure access.
      To be clear, I believe in science and value the opinions of Black doctors and nurses who I know. I am following their recommendations that my family and I get vaccinated as soon as we are able, but many of my family members (even after losing my vibrant Aunt Dolores just days before the holidays to Covid-19) and friends are apprehensive. One way, I imagine, to encourage more confidence in this process is to have a scheduling system that is easier to get through.
      The first step for me was to register for an account for my dad. My mom missed the current age limit for the phase they were in by a year, so I was not able to register her. After registration, I instructed my father on the process to confirm his account so that I could book an appointment for him.
      I was online as soon as the system opened at 6 a.m. on January 11, the first day county residents were able to make an appointment. At the time, there were two locations within 50 miles of my parents distributing the vaccine. I had to click through each individual date on the calendar to see if there was an opening because the system does not automatically suggest the next available time or date. This was frustrating, but within 25 minutes, I was able to schedule my dad at the further of the two available locations.
        I happily gave my parents the news, but they asked if there were openings at the State Farm Stadium, which is closer to their house. They had seen information about the location on the news and saw lines forming when they drove by. When I initially made my dad's appointment, the State Farm location was not an option, but later in the afternoon it was there -- as well as a link to try local pharmacies. The link then takes you to a separate webpage, and you have to check each pharmacy individually to see if they have appointments. After trying three nearby pharmacies with no success, I was able to book an appointment sooner at the 24-7 vaccine location at the State Farm Stadium.
        My hope was that because my mom went with my dad, she would be able to get vaccinated, too, which is exactly what happened. They both received the Pfizer vaccine on January 14 and were in and out of the drive-up vaccination site in less than 45 minutes, including the 15-minute wait period after the shot. I felt a huge sense of relief that they were one step closer to being more protected from this horrible disease and one step closer to being able to visit us in Michigan.
        They were told they would be contacted to schedule a day for their second dose soon, but as the days passed, they didn't hear anything. My parents and I made several calls to the Arizona Covid-19 hotline over the next 10 days and were told that there was no record of my mother being vaccinated and that my dad would have to wait to hear from someone.
        After several attempts to schedule a second appointment, my father found someone willing to help at the Arizona Department of Health. Finally, they were both scheduled for a second dose, but unfortunately, the date is 13 days past the initial recommended 21-day period for the Pfizer vaccine (Pfizer's CEO recently said that the second dose can be administered 19 to 42 days from the first dose).
          I miss my parents terribly. I have not seen them in person in over 14 months because of concerns that my travel during the pandemic could not only affect my family at home but them as well. They miss seeing their grandkids in person, and while this process took time and was often frustrating, I am so glad they have taken the first step towards being protected and can't wait to see and hug them in March.
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          In the end, we were fortunate. But I know that many adult children throughout the country are still trying to help their elderly parents schedule an appointment -- still clicking through dates on a calendar, making calls and getting the runaround. Part of coming out on the other side of this pandemic depends on the ability for the most vulnerable people to access a vaccine without this much difficulty.