DAYTONA BEACH SHORES – For Mary Tornabene, the daunting early morning walk across busy State Road A1A has become a daily routine, a ritual that started when Publix announced the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine this week at many of its pharmacies statewide.
At age 92, Tornabene is well above the 65-plus eligibility threshold to receive the vaccine. Yet the daily trek from her 16th floor unit in the Oceans Two condominium to the Publix across the street hasn’t resulted in the vaccination that she so desperately wants.
Without computer skills, cell phone or a car, Tornabene lacks the basic resources required to make appointments or wait in long lines for high-demand COVID-19 vaccinations.
So she has resorted to presenting herself unannounced at the Publix across the street most mornings, hoping that by some act of kindness — or perhaps a miracle — she might receive the vaccine.
More: These Publix in Volusia/Flagler will offer COVID-19 vaccinations by appointment
“They tell me they are going to see what they can do,” Tornabene said, holding back tears behind words laced with a mixture of despair and anger. “What am I going to do? Everyone says, ‘Get the shot! Get the shot! Get the shot!’”
Tornabene’s plight illustrates the challenges of connecting vaccine distribution with one of its first, primary targets in Volusia and Flagler counties, senior citizens over the age of 65.
At Volusia County’s first mass vaccination event nearly two weeks ago, seniors slept in their vehicles overnight as temperatures dipped into the low 40s. Even when appointments became available for subsequent events, the slots evaporated instantly as demand overwhelmed online reservation systems.
“I couldn’t wait all night in the cold,” Tornabene said of the prospect of camping out. “I can wait, but not for eight hours.”
Tornabene has tried without success to secure appointments for vaccination events in Deltona, at the Volusia County Fairgrounds in DeLand and at Publix, with help from computer savvy friend Patty Alongi.
More: 500 seniors get COVID vaccination Jan. 14 at Volusia County Fairgrounds
“I cannot get through,” said Alongi, who has been helping Tornabene with errands and transportation for several years. “I had my computer and my phone going at the same time. It was full within two minutes. Before you even refresh the screen, it’s gone.”
For Tornabene, the vaccine is crucial before she can visit her remaining family members in Levittown, New York. There’s a new great-granddaughter in the fold, a family group that also includes a son, a daughter, eight grandchildren and three other great-grandchildren.
They are her only remaining family since the death of Rosario, better known as “Sal,” her husband of 72 years. He died in August at age 96, of causes unrelated to the pandemic.
“I miss him terribly,” Tornabene said, leading visitors on a history tour of family photos and mementos that line the tables and walls of the living room, kitchen and bedroom of the unit that the couple had shared for 43 years.
The living room is decorated with statuettes of dozens of elephants, lions, tigers and other African beasts, a menagerie of “friends” that Tornabene has collected for years. Each has a story that she happily relates.
“I’ll never leave this place,” she said. “But I want to see the family. But I won’t go without a shot. It would put my life in danger and it would put others’ lives in danger.”
‘I never cried so much’
Listening to her friend, Alongi, who is in her 60s, points out that Tornabene isn’t the only senior citizen facing challenges in the vaccine distribution process.
“They need to find a way to help people,” she said. “I live in a senior community and these people cannot get out and stand in line. A lot of them are in wheelchairs.”
That doesn’t apply to Tornabene, who regularly rides for 30-minute sessions on an exercise bike in her condo and takes early morning walks on the beach to keep her 5-foot-nothing frame at a lean 100 pounds.
And when she frequently speaks her mind, in bursts occasionally peppered with naughty words, her eyes can stare right through you.
“I can beat anybody,” she said. “Don’t mess with me.”
Yet, the one-two punch of the death of her soul mate and the ongoing pandemic is testing her will. At several points, she breaks into tears on a recent afternoon.
“This morning, I was at Publix at 7:15 and I never cried so much,” she said. “I told them, ‘You’ve got to do something.’ I was cold and I was holding on to the cart. I want my shot.”
For now, the two friends will continue to do their best to navigate the system.
Alongi will keep working the phones and the computer, but she urges public officials and private companies to work together to find a better way.
“They can tell people to go online, but I can tell you it’s not going to happen,” Alongi said. “I have elderly people in my life and they are not tech savvy. They need to do something to simplify the process.”
Meanwhile, Tornabene will continue her morning walks to Publix, in hopes of a miracle.
“I’m going back there tomorrow,” she said, “and I’ll cry again.”