My nightly routine these days goes like this: Around 9 p.m., I shower and blow-dry my bangs. Then I get in bed, pull down my eye mask, and drift off for a glorious two-hour snooze. By midnight, I’m back at my desk in my bathrobe hitting refresh, refresh, refresh on the New York City Covid-19 vaccine finder site. If I’m lucky, there will have been a big drop somewhere — if not at the NYC site, maybe one of the pharmacy chains. I check Rite Aid. Findashot.org. Walgreens, and then go back through it all again. I try to book at least one appointment before heading back to bed. Last night was a good night — I was able to book two.
I work from a spreadsheet of names put together and maintained by a group of vaccine angels who I met on Facebook. The official group name: Vaccine Scheduler NYC. We’re a ragtag team of healthcare workers, students, and bored computer-savvy randos (like myself) just trying to help make an unfair system a little bit more fair.
In New York, people 50 and over, those with certain medical conditions, as well as a growing list of essential workers are eligible to be vaccinated. Although vaccine supply has been steadily growing, appointments to actually get vaccinated at the vast network of city, state, and pharmacy sites remain precious and hard to come by. The majority of appointments must be made online. Each website is a little different. The vaccination sites often have their own eligibility requirements: The pharmacies only take seniors and teachers, while many city-run sites are only for certain boroughs. On top of that, appointments are posted at random times. They’re gone in minutes, sometimes before you can even finish filling out the eligibility form.
In short, it is an enormously complex clusterfuck that’s hard to figure out in your native language. For the people who call the Vaccine Scheduler number, it’s nearly impossible to navigate. The people we get appointments for are elderly people who often do not have email addresses, monolingual Spanish or Chinese speakers, undocumented people who work long shifts and late nights in restaurant kitchens or as drivers, disabled people who have accessibility needs — all the people this system was practically designed to leave behind.
So far, I’ve booked 16 appointments. That’s nothing compared to others involved in the group. People like Maddie Fernbach, who has booked 120 appointments. Or our fearless leader Ee Tay, M.D. (who also works as an emergency room physician at NYU Langone), who has booked more than 300.
Dr. Tay started Vaccine Scheduler NYC three weeks ago now after she spent her two-week vacation booking appointments for the elderly. It started in early January when she helped her neighbors, a married couple in their 80s who didn’t have computers, get appointments. Then, realizing more people probably needed help, she posted flyers in her building, and more neighbors started calling so she helped them, too. From there, word spread “like wildfire,” she says, and by the end of February she’d made 200 appointments. As the eligibility list in New York keeps expanding, getting an appointment isn’t getting any easier. The pool of people who need help navigating the system just keeps growing. “I was seeing seniors getting squeezed out. I felt like I had to rush to get them an appointment because they were competing against younger people,” Dr. Tay says. “Then I started to realize how many people were also experiencing barriers, like language and maybe they don’t come from a socioeconomic background where they have good internet or a computer at home. There were just so many people who needed help.”
So, Dr. Tay decided to build a team. She sent a mass email to her colleagues at NYU Langone asking for help. She recruited medical students, and sought help from the “Helping NYC Get Vaccinated (Covid 19)” Facebook group. Then she created a Google voice number and got flyers made in Chinese, Spanish, and English. People in the Facebook group — 7,400 members strong now — printed the flyers and posted them in their buildings and on street corners in their neighborhoods. (The flyers are how I got involved — I posted a few in my neighborhood after seeing them in the Facebook group, and then I sent Ee a message asking to help further.)
Now, day and night, a group of roughly 20 volunteers spends their free time answering calls, inputting necessary data into the spreadsheet (name, date of birth, allergies, email, address, appointment preference), searching for and booking the appointments, and then making callbacks (often in the callers’ native language) to let people know where and when they can get vaccinated. In two weeks of launching, Vaccine Scheduler NYC has made 700 appointments and counting.
“These are people who just don’t know how to navigate the system. The sites are not in their language, and they’re confusing,” says Jade Tapia, 26, who has been doing the bulk of the Spanish language callbacks for Vaccine Scheduler NYC. “I can’t tell you how many times I call them back, and it’s this huge sigh of relief. You can hear it in their voices: I have one of my people calling me back in Spanish. She’s going to help me secure an appointment. They finally know that there’s help coming.”
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Vaccine Scheduler NYC is just one group out of hundreds, if not thousands, that have sprung out of the chaos that is the U.S. vaccine rollout. If you spend any amount of time in any of the vaccine hunting Facebook groups (there are multiple for each state now, and searchable on VaccineHunter.org) you will find one of these groups who specialize in your state’s unique system. They use free technology tools like Google forms and Facebook messenger to collect the pertinent info, and they work together to help those who can’t type fast enough, or those who don’t speak or read English, book precious appointments. All you have to do to get involved is join one of the Facebook groups.
When you talk to these women — because yes, almost all of them are women — they all have a similar story. It starts with booking one appointment, either for themselves or a loved one who needed help. Through the process of booking your first appointment you learn how confusing it is to get one. “People don’t realize how hard it is. My colleagues who all have medical degrees are asking me how do you do it? These are doctors!” Dr. Tay says. But once you learn the system well enough to actually be successful, it’s almost impossible not to want to pay it forward and get more.
“It’s addictive,” says Dana Shulman, who has booked 750 appointments by herself. “It’s like the coolest video game ever. When you win, you get someone a life-saving vaccine.”
The rush I feel when I find an appointment at a good location at a good time for one of the people on our list is better than any drug I’ve ever tried. After a year of feeling so completely powerless, booking appointments is a breath of fresh air. It feels like hope has finally arrived, and the best part is when you get to be the person who delivers the news.
“For me this is the most rewarding thing. When I tell people I got their appointment they cry and tell me ‘you’ve saved my life!’,” says Beth Dubuss, an independent vaccine booker who’s made more than 500 appointments for people in her hometown of Floral Park, N.Y. and on Facebook. “We’ve seen people in our town die. It’s heartbreaking to think if only they could have hung on we could have saved them, too. But that’s how I look at it, we’re really saving people.”
For Tapia, who spent the bulk of last year caring for her father who survived months on a ventilator and is still struggling from the fallout of a severe case of Covid-19, this work is deeply personal. “Every appointment we get, that’s one less family that will have to go through what my family is going through,” she says.
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Likewise, for Haidee Chen, who does many of the Mandarin callbacks for Vaccine Scheduler NYC, making sure those who are scared to get the vaccine because of misinformation on WeChat or simply because they can’t communicate with the pharmacist is a personal mission. “Any of these people could be my parents or my parents’ friends,” she says.
As gratifying as the work is, it shouldn’t be this hard. It’s not a secret that the U.S. vaccine rollout has been anything but smooth. Scarcity of vaccines is the main problem, of course. But there’s also the fact that nothing makes sense about how we’re delivering the vaccines we do have: Every state has different eligibility rules. Only certain pharmacies and hospital systems have vaccines — and it’s not immediately clear which ones they are. There are mass vaccination sites run by states, but there are also mass vaccination sites run by cities and the federal government. Every single one of these places requires you to book an appointment a certain way (in some states, some don’t require appointments at all), and none of the systems communicate with one another. Then, you add on top of that, language barriers and the fact that many of the most vulnerable people can’t just drop everything to get to an unfamiliar place.
“It’s completely maddening. I don’t know how to fix it. The only thing I know to do is to do what we’re doing,” Shulman says. “We’re all doing the best that we can.”
The rollout, though things are getting better, is still moving along at a glacial pace in every state. If you ask Dr. Tay, she’s not sure how much of a difference we’re making in the grand scheme of things. “We’re making a little dent, but it’s really not big enough. We’re moving so slowly,” she says. “But I think the important thing is, the vaccines are going to get taken up no matter what. We’re trying to be advocates for our specific group — our seniors and the restaurant workers and the cab drivers working 12-hour shifts who have fewer choices — who are at a disadvantage.”
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These are the people I think about when my alarm goes off at 11:45 and I really don’t want to get out of bed. I keep a list of their first names on the notes app on my computer to mark how many I’ve done, and who I need to contact in the morning. The thing is, I’ve personally been very lucky in this pandemic. I work from home, and I pretty much have all the tools to stay safe at my disposal. So I’m just hoping, in some small way, that what I’m doing is helping others stay safe, too.