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Vaccine-hunting volunteers help Americans score COVID jabs

Rebecca Burke’s finger hovered over the “post” button on a COVID-19 vaccination thread. Was she really going to ask a total stranger on Facebook to help her get her first dose?

With two young children at home and a May return-to-work date from her New York City employer hovering over her, the education administrator said she decided to “put some faith in humanity and move forward”.

“A volunteer sent me a message the minute I posted,” Burke, 33, told Al Jazeera. “She said she was happy to support an educator and that I would be the 201st person she’s helped. In the wee hours of that night, she sent me booking information. It was the deepest internet connection I’ve felt in a long time. I’m on the internet a lot right now, but I felt extreme gratitude for this act of online kindness from a stranger.”

Burke received her first dose of the vaccine days later in late March, finding the moment “symbolic — that we did something great and that we made it through — science, humanity, my family and myself,” she said.

But she also found the whole process — a midnight Facebook search, an unknown volunteer, a drive to a vaccination site away from her Jersey City, New Jersey home — indicative of deeper issues about access and equity.

Education administrator Rebecca Burke turned to Facebook for help finding a COVID-19 vaccine dose in her area after finding out she would be returning to work in person in New York City in May [Courtesy: Rebecca Burke]

“I’m so grateful for the volunteer who helped me, but she shouldn’t have to do this,” Burke said. “The vaccine is a right and it should be distributed fairly and in an organised manner.”

Earlier this week, United States President Joe Biden upped the deadline to April 19 for states to make COVID-19 vaccines available to everyone over the age of 18, shaving two weeks off his administration’s earlier timeline.

Faced with rising cases, Biden has previously doubled his initial goal to 200 million shots in arms in his first 100 days in office. The US’s pace has ramped up to about three million jabs per day over the past week, but the emergence of new variants makes achieving herd immunity harder, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns, and immunising more people more quickly more urgent.

Yet despite the national push to tackle a disease that has killed more than 556,000 Americans, distributing vaccines still largely falls to state and local authorities, which has made the process variable, decentralised and in some cases, chaotic.

‘Chaos in each wave’

In some parts of the US, scoring a COVID-19 jab involves a labyrinth of hospital, state and pharmacy websites that must be refreshed within seconds, a process that disproportionately disadvantages groups who aren’t able to spend all that time online, including people without internet access — and that is a bigger share of the population than many realise.

The Federal Communications Commission estimates 21 million Americans lack broadband internet access, the Pew Charitable Trusts found, but data from Microsoft puts the number as high as 157.3 million.

Even with a strong internet connection, there is a tech-savviness required that plenty of people don’t have — including people facing language barriers and senior citizens. Emily Oster has seen the challenges firsthand — both as an economist studying the coronavirus pandemic and a daughter trying to get her family vaccinated.

“We got my in-laws in early in New York, but this required basically refreshing websites over and over again, and searching out all the possible locations to sign up — and there were a lot,” Oster, a professor of economics at Brown University, told Al Jazeera. “On the other hand, my parents in Connecticut just got a notification from their doctor and it was easy.”

That wide variety in ease and accessibility has led to a disorderly roll-out in some places.

I have a huge drive to solve problems, and it didn’t sit right with me to only be doing the basics in the face of a calamity … I knew I would never entirely forgive myself if I didn’t put my skills to use.

Vallery Lancey, VaccinateCA volunteer

“As states open up to new age groups, we have returned to a bit of chaos in each wave,” Oster explained.

Into that chaos have stepped armies of volunteers ready to help total strangers navigate the various vaccine scheduling systems.

Executive management consultant Amy Heller founded the non-profit WGIRLS in 2007 to help empower women and children. Up until six weeks ago, the organisation’s 450 regular volunteers weren’t focused on getting people vaccinated against COVID-19.

That changed when Heller’s 80-year-old neighbour in Ocean Grove, New Jersey asked her for help scheduling an appointment.

“I had no idea how bad it was because I wasn’t in the market for the vaccine at the time,” Heller told Al Jazeera. “I did a little digging and was like, oh my goodness, because it took me a bit to get her an appointment. And I thought there is absolutely no way this is working for seniors.”

She watched as volunteers tried to help others on Facebook, with chaotic results.

“It was just so disorganised, and I said, ‘I know that I can coordinate this and make it what it needs to be to make this at least easier,’” she added. “That was six weeks ago. We set up all of these groups across the state of New Jersey and now in New York, and we have procured appointments for over 18,000 seniors.”

Procuring ‘miracles’

Among those seniors are Lynne Royce and her husband, David, who are both over 75 and living in Shrewsbury, New Jersey. The couple usually welcomes their children and grandchildren to their home near the Atlantic Ocean each summer for what they call “Camp Ocean Nana and Grandpa Dave”.

But the pandemic brought it “all to a screeching halt,” Lynne Royce, 79, said.

“We haven’t seen our family for over a year. No hugs. No long walks along the beach looking for seashells,” she told Al Jazeera. “No sitting and talking with family for hours and catching up with what going on in everyone’s life. No visiting our children and grandchildren at their homes for soccer games, concerts, plays and graduations.”

“It was a devastating loss of family time that we will never get back,” she added.

Lynne Royce (bottom left) and her husband David with three of their granddaughters, who they haven’t seen in more than a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic [Courtesy: Lynne Royce]

Royce, a retired journalist, said she didn’t initially think scheduling appointments would be difficult when the couple became eligible for them in January. She registered with the state health agency, local hospitals and medical groups and pharmacies.

“I spent several hours a day for weeks trying to find vaccines for my husband and myself. It was very frustrating because nothing worked,” Royce said. “Friends were running into the same problems. There seemed to be no way to obtain vaccines.”

Royce turned WGIRLS in late February. Within two days, a volunteer named Meeta had called her to help and jotted down her details.

“The amazing thing is that she called back four hours later with appointments for both me and my husband the next day at a clinic eight miles from our house,” Royce said. “It totally blew me away. I couldn’t believe she nailed our vaccines so quickly and in such a convenient location — talk about miracles.”

Royce and her husband have now received both doses of a two-shot COVID-19 vaccine. They plan to celebrate their immunity — two weeks after receiving their second shot — along with their 54th wedding anniversary.

“We’re celebrating with lunch at a Jersey Shore restaurant, something we haven’t done for over a year, followed by a long, leisurely walk along the ocean’s edge. This would not have happened without Meeta’s help,” Royce said.

Putting tech skills to use

Other volunteers have centred their efforts on making sure vaccine doses don’t go to waste. Both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines can’t be refrozen once thawed and must be used within hours.

Vallery Lancey is a co-organiser with VaccinateCA, a volunteer-run site that publishes a comprehensive map of places to get vaccinated in the state of California, along with up-to-date information on sites that have doses available.

Lancey, whose day job is building software-defined infrastructure, said she knew she had skills that could help.

“I have a huge drive to solve problems, and it didn’t sit right with me to only be doing the basics in the face of a calamity,” Lancey told Al Jazeera. “When I saw the project’s inception on Twitter one night, I knew I would never entirely forgive myself if I didn’t put my skills to use.”

We clearly should have had a national sign-up process and not a bunch of random websites. However, even with a great process online we’d still need to be bringing shots to people in creative ways going forward.

Emily Oster, Brown University economics professor

VaccinateCA volunteers “call hundreds of vaccination locations to verify key details directly with professionals and then post what we find on our website for everyone to use,” Lancey explained. “Between social media, our contact form, and volunteers directly helping people in their communities, we’ve heard from hundreds of people that we helped them or their loved ones get vaccinated.”

Software developer Dan Benamy, 36, helps run a similar site on the East Coast. NYC Vaccine List is a volunteer site that lets users search for appointments at nearly 800 vaccine sites with a single click. So far, the site has been used by more than one million people, he said.

“Everyone on the team brings important skills: building partnerships with local organisations, handling thousands of questions, getting the word out, designing and building the site, and more,” Benamy told Al Jazeera.

For Benamy, keeping the site running smoothly has meant staying up until 3am and beyond, but he said “I’m amazed at all of the people who have come together to make this happen, thankful for the tools and resources that made it possible, and so proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

In-person push

Helping strangers book appointments online has also spurred volunteers to come up with offline solutions.

WGIRLS volunteers recently canvassed in New York City’s Chinatown, urging people to get vaccinated and helping them access materials in multiple languages. Heller said she would also love to see a hotline that makes it easier for seniors to make appointments over the phone. Oster suggests offering vaccine sign-ups at churches or places where people already gather.

And progress is being made. The system “still favours the organised and tech-savvy in a way that is not ideal, but as availability has gotten better, it’s a little more sensible,” she explained.

“We clearly should have had a national sign-up process and not a bunch of random websites,” Oster added. “However, even with a great process online we’d still need to be bringing shots to people in creative ways going forward. So I think this was a failure, for sure, but looking at the numbers, I think we are still doing okay.”

For those who jumped into the chaos and volunteered to help others get vaccinated, the experience has also changed the way they think about big problems — and how to solve them.

“Overall, it’s been an amazing and humbling experience,” Lancey said. “It’s also been a very stark reminder that we all have the power, and the responsibility, to make a meaningful difference. I’ve never been happy to say that something isn’t my problem, but I think I’ll always view massive problems in society differently after this.”




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