BRISTOL, R.I. — Mary Lou Gatta, 75, looks around her home and thinks it looks more like a hospital. Canes, walkers, a wheelchair, prescription pill bottles, a stair lift, oxygen concentrator, and portable tanks lurk around each corner as constant reminders of her role as an around-the-clock caregiver.
Gatta’s husband, who did not want to be identified in this article, is homebound. He is 81 and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; his lungs collapsed four times, causing him to undergo four surgeries to try to prevent them from collapsing again. Each procedure is represented by a small scar.
When he was released from his six-month stint at the hospital in January 2020 — before the COVID-19 pandemic even hit Rhode Island — his doctor told him: “Under no circumstance are you allowed to leave your house.”
It’s been 13 months and Gatta has kept her husband safe. She leaves once a week, doubling up her face masks, to go to the drug store and get groceries. And then it’s right back home.
If Gatta was to contract the virus and bring it home to her husband, the effects would be deadly. For them, the grim reality is that getting the vaccine is the only way to keep him alive.
But while Rhode Island’s age-based approach means they both were eligible to get vaccinated, there had not been any communication from the state about how they would get their shots.
After weeks of trying to navigate glitchy websites, complicated communication channels, and unresponsive town personnel, Gatta said she received a call from the Bristol police last Friday, telling her she would have to bring her husband to a municipal clinic the next day for them both to be vaccinated.
Bringing her husband there was no easy task. He’s on oxygen at all times, and relies on a portable tank that holds about an hour’s worth of oxygen.
“If they take too long, he could die from the lack of oxygen,” she said. “But he needs this shot.”
Gatta prepared her car the night before; installing a plastic sheet in the passenger side door so that her husband just had to extend his arm to receive the vaccine. After they were administered doses, they sat inside their car together waiting for their 15 minutes of observation period to be over before they returned home.
“I couldn’t help myself but cry,” she said. “I was just so relieved after all the stress of trying to figure out how we could get the shots.”
Their ordeal is not yet over: In a few weeks, Gatta and her husband will have to venture out again for their second doses.
Advocates for the elderly throughout New England have raised concerns that homebound seniors have been left out of vaccine distribution plans. In Massachusetts, state officials told The Boston Globe that they are working with communities, health insurance companies, and other groups to set up transportation to sites for those who can get out, as well as home delivery systems for those who can’t. In Rhode Island, health officials said a plan to vaccinate these seniors in their homes is on the way, and that they are working with towns and cities to identify where homebound seniors live.
But without much communication from the state, caregivers are trying to find alternative solutions — including bringing homebound seniors to in-person clinics, which could put many in harms way.
“This process should be easy. The state should be catering to homebound seniors. Not the other way around,” said Donna Wilson, the assistant director of the Benjamin Church Senior Center in Bristol. “The state just doesn’t understand how strapped these people are.”
On Feb. 18, the health department released a form to request an in-home COVID-19 vaccination. But filling out the form — which isn’t accessible to those without Internet and may be difficult for those who aren’t tech-literate — does not schedule or even guarantee a COVID-19 vaccine appointment. The first line of the form reads: “Individuals are encouraged to make every effort to safely attend COVID-19 vaccination opportunities outside the home.”
When asked if the health department has a timeline for vaccinating homebound seniors, the state’s health department spokesman Joseph Wendelken said, “I don’t have a set date. It will certainly start in the coming weeks.”
Wendelken did not respond to questions about the number of homebound seniors in Rhode Island. According to Meghan Grady, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Rhode Island, the organization delivers to 1,200 homebound seniors each day, which is only a portion of homebound Rhode Islanders.
“These people are homebound. They should have been prioritized,” said Catherine Taylor, the executive director of Age-Friendly Rhode Island, which is a coalition of community and state agencies, service providers, and advocates. “We need to meet people where they’re at.”
Representative Michelle McGaw, a Portsmouth Democrat and a member of the House COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, said she was disheartened to hear that a plan for homebound residents had not yet been in place. She said she thought health care workers would be bringing shots to residents.
“This is so concerning to me,” said McGaw, who is also a pharmacist, and has been telling many of her elderly constituents to register with the state’s special needs registry. “And there are so many challenges to people who are homebound going to a municipal clinic.”
But many Rhode Islanders who are homebound think that leaving their home and going to a clinic is their only option.
Edward Oliver, 93, a World War II veteran, had a stroke in August 2020 and moved in with his daughter, Jean Oliver, 60, in Bristol. Under doctor’s orders, he is not supposed to leave the house. She was told that her father wouldn’t be able to get vaccinated yet at the VA, even despite his age, and was unable to get information about someone coming to administer the dose in the house. She finally secured an appointment with the town last weekend, but he fell and broke his hip the day before his appointment.
“He didn’t want to get into the ambulance and go to the hospital because he wanted to get his vaccine,” she said. “I don’t even know if that will be possible.”
“None of this makes sense to me,” she added. “He’s at risk. Why is this so hard?”