Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the vaccine: Volunteers making appointments for strangers

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Photo by Artem Podrez via Pexels

By VIRGINIA JEFFRIES and PHOEBE PINDER

Jane Duncan has spent every night for the past two weeks on Walgreens’ website refreshing her computer screen, waiting for new vaccine appointments to open up.

“From midnight to two is when they load one set of appointments. And then generally from five to seven in the morning is when they load their other ones,” Duncan said in a phone interview. “Rite Aid is a mystery to me. It seems like around six or seven.”

But she isn’t searching for an appointment for herself or even for her family members. Duncan is one of 3,000 members of the Facebook group Covid Vaccine Help – New York volunteering their time to help book vaccine slots online and by phone for total strangers, mostly senior citizens.

Duncan is not alone. As  appointments remain scarce nationwide and nearly half of U.S. seniors lack high-speed internet at home, getting an online appointment can seem next to impossible for many over 65, who need the vaccine most urgently. In response, people from all over the country have organized groups like the one Duncan belongs to in an effort to get people their shots and end the pandemic faster.

The New York Facebook group is made up of both volunteers working to connect people with appointments and patients in search of tips for how to get slots for themselves or their loved ones.

“People are confused and bewildered about where to go, how to get an appointment, who to call,” the group’s mission statement reads. “Many are choosing not to get vaccinated simply because it’s too overwhelming to deal with and there’s not enough information. We can help change that.”

Duncan, a dog-walker and cat-sitter in New York City who found herself unemployed since the pandemic struck, has been helping people book appointments since Feb. 1.
“Yesterday, I booked 22 people,” she said. “I had a lucky day where just things kept popping up.”

Friday, Duncan spent over six hours on the phone with one agent at the New York State hotline and booked over 50 appointments.

Duncan said that since she began this work, numerous people have contacted her for help. Earlier this week, a local physician reached out asking for appointments for 457 of his patients. Duncan, who said it typically takes her anywhere from one to six hours to book a single appointment, has already begun the massive task. But she says she is actually inspired by him.

“It’s amazing to me. Like, my doctor didn’t do that. My doctor didn’t say, ‘I’m going to get all my patients vaccinated.’”

She got started by helping her grandmother

Sarah Reiss is another volunteer who has dedicated much of her time to helping people book vaccine appointments.

“I guess it started because, when my grandmother became eligible, she had no idea like, what to do or how to get a vaccine,” Reiss said in a phone interview. “So I was the one kind of going on the websites and finding her something. And then, she realized she had a friend who was 92 years old and didn’t have any family or anyone to help her with [getting the vaccine], and that story just broke my heart.

“I wanted to see what I could do to help people find vaccines, especially people who are older, and just don’t have the technology background to figure out the system for themselves.”

Reiss turned to Facebook for advice, and soon stumbled across the New York Facebook group as well. Since then, she estimates she has helped around 20 people get appointments for vaccination.

Reiss said that people will either reach out to her individually, or fill out a Google Form with their information, which she will then use to book appointments. Reiss said that she downloaded a Google Chrome application that auto-refreshes web pages for her. She will keep appointment-booking sites open in the background of her computer as she works on her full-time job, and will periodically check in throughout the day to book appointments.

“I happen to work from home, so it’s easy for me to keep something in the background of my computer,” Reiss told ClearHealthCosts. But that doesn’t apply to everyone. Seniors definitely have trouble navigating with technology, and they’re not quick. Unless there’s a huge drop of appointments from the state, these appointments go so fast that seniors cannot type their information that quickly.”

In terms of a potential solution, Reiss brought up the idea of wait-lists. She said that her husband’s grandparents and some of their friends, who live in Florida, were able to get appointments off of wait-lists. “I haven’t heard anyone in New York being like, ‘hey, I got off a waitlist,’” Reiss said. “That just doesn’t seem to exist, at least in the state. Maybe by pharmacies, but not from the state.”

At this time, Reiss believes the best way to secure a vaccine is persistence. “I really understand everyone’s frustration,” she said. “I constantly am hearing like, ‘the system is so messed up, it’s impossible to find anything’ and I really hear the frustration. But yeah, I guess there there are ways to find the vaccines, if you’re putting in a lot of effort, which shouldn’t have to be the case. But you know, if somebody needs help, they should just keep reaching out to friends or family or Facebook or something to find different avenues to explore, to try to find something, and then eventually you’ll get it.”

He wants to get his community vaccinated as quickly as possible

Ben K., a New Yorker who spoke on condition that his last name not be made public, also started helping people secure vaccines after helping an older family member get an appointment. He estimates that he has since helped around 75 people get vaccinated.

“I developed a familiarity with specifically the state-run locations,” Ben said in a phone interview. “So, all the locations through the state’s Am I Eligible’ page. I just got very familiar with how it worked. And I told a friend of mine, whose dad I knew was eligible, and him and I just started small with our dads, and then started asking other people in our circles that our parents knew or, you know, older relatives if they were interested, and kind of after we got through a couple dozen people each, we were like, ‘well, we know how to do this pretty successfully, we should just start putting the word out to other people.’”

Ben said he started posting on Facebook groups and spreading the word among people he knew that, although he could not guarantee it, he had relatively good success with securing vaccine appointments.

“I want to get as many people in Westchester and the New York City community, which are the two communities that I’ve lived in my life, vaccinated as quickly as possible. I know, it’s been a very, very frustrating struggle for a lot of people to navigate the website. And so especially with those people, it’s been nice to help those who otherwise have essentially given up.”

Although Ben has been primarily helping seniors, he said he plans to keep helping as different groups become eligible. “As long as I keep finding success, I’m more than happy to keep helping people,” Ben said. “As more groups have opened up over time, there’s obviously been more demand for appointments, and that then means that I have been less successful. But as long as I can still find appointments, I’m going to keep helping whoever I can, whoever reaches out.”

What you can do

If you’re interested in volunteering to find vaccine appointments for others, or finding a volunteer to help you book an appointment, search for a Facebook group in your region. Many groups have the term “vaccine angels” in their name. Here are a few that ClearHealthCosts found while reporting this story.

Covid Vaccine Help – New York has 3,000 members seeking and getting appointments, including people like Duncan and Reiss who are making appointments for others.

New York/Connecticut Vaccine Hunters has 2,600 members. This group helps connect people in the region with extra doses — shots that would otherwise be thrown away.

This web page lists other “vaccine hunter” groups for those seeking spare doses. While this is their primary stated purpose, on many of the groups, other types of vaccine information is also offered.

New Jersey Covid Vaccine Info has 48,500 members sharing information about the latest appointment slots in the state.

Georgia Covid Vax Appt Help’s 7,500 members are a mix of people helping others find shots and folks seeking help to get appointments for themselves in the state.

NOLA Vaccine Hunters has 5,000 members, some of whom are helping others get vaccine appointments and others who are looking for help finding appointments in the New Orleans area.