Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the vaccines: Hurdles and success stories of volunteer ‘vaccine angels’

Filed Under: Costs

- photo by Renee Elias on Unsplash

By VIRGINIA JEFFRIES and PHOEBE PINDER

Darlene Ferreira works 10 to 12 hours a day in the office. But when she gets home, she begins work on what has become for her a second job: helping total strangers get Covid vaccines.

“I got home today at nine. I’ll probably be doing this until 2 a.m.,” Ferreira, who lives in Nassau County, Long Island with her mother, said. “The second midnight hits, I’m booking for people 65 and above, at the pharmacies and I do that up until around 2 a.m. or 2:30 until my mom yells at me.”

Ferreira is part of a nationwide trend of people volunteering to help seniors and other vulnerable groups who may not have the tech skills necessary to get online appointments for themselves.

She works with a group of people she met on the Facebook group Covid Vaccine Help – New York. The group, which has over 9,000 members, is a place where volunteers like Ferreira can connect with patients who need the vaccine. The volunteers ClearHealthCosts spoke with are motivated by a drive to help end the pandemic, which has killed 500,000 Americans since it began a year ago.

“It’s just devastating to me, and I would love more than anything to try to get a slight sense of hope for everyone,” Ferreira said in a phone interview. “[Getting an] appointment for someone could be what saves their life.”

Members of Ferreira’s Facebook group have had great success, with several members reporting that they have signed up hundreds of people over the past two-and-a-half months. But volunteers are saying that this success has become a double-edged sword.

Now that they have become well-known, some of the people who have come to them seeking help are making overly specific requests, making and then canceling appointments for convenience and treating the volunteer service more like a concierge than a group of idealistic citizens donating their time in a national emergency. And the volunteers say this is slowing down their efforts to get as many people vaccinated as possible.

Hard work, occasional frustration

Although the volunteers are tireless and generous with their time, they experience occasional frustration with individuals who disregard the hard work it can take to make a single appointment.

The volunteers say that some people are making multiple appointments through multiple volunteer groups and then canceling or not showing up for appointments that are inconvenient. This takes away appointment opportunities from other people who need them, and wastes the time of volunteers who contribute hours of their personal time to book appointments for others.

“Yesterday I made 38 appts and 29 of them already had appts or cancelled the ones I made — I felt awful,” an anonymous volunteer commented on one of the volunteer Facebook groups.

“Of the 5 appointments I made, only 2 were going to keep the appointments I booked,” another anonymous commenter posted. “The other 3 all had appointments already. Or times and dates that suited them better. While I understand people are more than entitled to change their appointments and we should always encourage and applaud people for booking on their own, I can’t help but feel somewhat frustrated in chasing my own tail for my fellow NY’ers today.
Is it then appropriate and more Efficient to call names from the list to confirm they still need an appointment before you book them an appointment?”

Another anonymous volunteer wrote: “It’s like we are becoming personal shoppers for folks trying to outbid when there are folks out there without even internet access. That’s what irritates me…knowing that I spend 4 hours booking multiple appts for folks who got their own when there are so many elders who don’t know how to navigate these sites. I won’t do the ‘get me a better appt’ ones anymore.”

Another anonymous commenter wrote that this situation had happened to them enough times that they were no longer interested in being part of the volunteer process. “For this reason and more appts in general I am bowing out for now unless someone specifically asks me for help,” the commenter wrote.

Success stories

Despite the problems, the Covid Vaccine Help – New York Facebook group has been a huge success. Thanks to word of mouth and press coverage, membership tripled to 9,000 over the course of two weeks.

“It’s definitely exploded into something really good and really exciting,” Jane Duncan, a volunteer in Manhattan said in a phone interview.

To cope with this increased demand and to streamline the process, Duncan, Ferreira and some other members founded a volunteers-only subgroup. Instead of connecting with volunteers on the Facebook page, patients can fill out a form that includes their contact information to request the help getting an appointment.

Duncan said the new group is off to a great start. “We now have like, 100 people,” Duncan said. “And they’re all dying to volunteer.”

Another powerhouse of vaccine volunteers is WGIRLS, an organization dedicated to empowering and supporting women and children in underserved communities.

WGIRLS’s founder, Amy Heller, started out by lending a hand to her elderly neighbor who was having difficulty securing an appointment. In her quest to help, Heller stumbled across the New Jersey chapter of the Covid Vaccine Help Facebook group, and was shocked to learn the measures some volunteers had been having to go to just to make appointments.

“I was like, Oh my gosh, how the heck could anybody that isn’t super computer savvy, succeed at this process?” Heller said in a phone interview with ClearHealthCosts. “And you knew the answer was they couldn’t. So I offered my help.”

After successfully helping several people get vaccinated, Heller said she decided to go bigger. “I was like, I know that this can be organized, and I have a background in coordinating volunteers and a background in operational strategy,” Heller said. “I’m just going to put some rigor around this. And so I asked for some help.”

Through the WGIRLS community, Heller began building a network of volunteers dedicated to helping seniors in New York and New Jersey get vaccinated. The operation launched less than a month ago, and Heller said they have already booked over 4,000 appointments for seniors.

“I think [taking part in this] is helping the volunteers,” Heller said. “I think there’s been a lot that has been out of people’s control. You can’t control the behavior of other people, you can’t control the rollout, you can’t control the mass mandates, you can’t control the government, you can’t control science. But you can control your reaction to it. And I think the need to lean in and help to do whatever you can do to end this sooner, is palpable. And I think that that’s what’s driving a lot of our volunteers.”

What people should be doing

If you yourself are seeking a vaccine appointment, it pays to be cognizant of the hard work put in by volunteers, and the fact that thousands of other people are also seeking appointments. If you are seeking help from multiple sources and volunteer groups, you must make the volunteers aware that you are doing so.
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.

WGIRLS’s Facebook page can be found here. According to founder Amy Heller, the organization has been so inundated with volunteers they are now accepting only “power bookers,” capable of booking 15-20 appointments a day. They hope to soon be able to start training new “power bookers.”

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.

The NY-HV Covid-19 Vaccine Appointment Assistance Team on Facebook is helping people in the Hudson Valley region of New York.

The Long Island Covid-19 Vaccination Information group on Facebook had 13,700 members in mid-March, helping people in the Long Island region.

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.