Volunteer army helps Florida elders book coveted COVID shots

Jenn Greenberg is pretty busy helping her kindergartner with virtual classes and taking care of a toddler in her Florida home. But somehow she has also found the time to help dozens of seniors she has never met navigate the confusing, often chaotic process of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

Greenberg is part of a 120-member volunteer force helping South Florida residents 65 and older clear the daunting hurdles of state-run registration systems that are poorly organized and rely heavily on a technology that is often like a foreign language to them.

The problem has emerged in numerous states, where the absence of a streamlined national system has forced local governments to hurriedly cobble together a puzzling patchwork of vaccine distribution and administration plans.

“I realized how many barriers were in place which made lining up appointments very difficult,” said Greenberg, 36, who was inspired to volunteer her services after she saw how much work it took to get her own parents and grandparents signed up.

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“Unfortunately, there are many people in need,” she said.

When Florida expanded eligibility for the vaccine to the general elderly population in late December, anxious seniors camped out overnight at vaccination sites, phone lines rang unanswered and websites crashed.

Many seniors have also been thrown by having to register online instead of making an appointment by phone or in person.

Recognizing a need to simplify the process, school principal Russ Schwartz and registered nurse Katherine Quirk of Parkland established the South Florida COVID-19 Vaccination Info page on Facebook.

First set up last month, the page was conceived to be a one-stop shop for seniors — somewhere they could find all the information they needed to sign up for shots. The Facebook group alerted members when vaccination hotlines were listing available spots or when a website was about to accept bookings.

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The page’s organizers soon found, however, that seniors aren’t necessarily glued to their cellphones and laptops, and that it would be much easier for them if someone could sign up on their behalf.

“A lot of our seniors, when they are using their cellphones, you tell them to send you a photo or go to an app and they can’t,” Schwartz said. “It takes them more time. It’s just not their language.”

Volunteering has turned into a full-time job for some of the group’s participants as they toggle back and forth between the online registration platforms of hospitals, grocery stores and county governments; check on state vaccination supplies and make repeated calls to overloaded hotlines.

Katherine Quirk, left and her husband, Russ Schwarz, pose for photos Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, at their home in Parkland, Fla. The two started South Florida COVID-19 Vaccination Info to gather information in one place for seniors to better be able to sign up on their own. The Facebook group alerted members as soon as a hotline had available spots, or a website was about to launch bookings. They soon found, however, that seniors aren’t necessarily glued to their phones and laptops, so Schwartz and Quirk shifted their focus to actually doing the sign-ups on behalf of seniors, collecting a list of vaccine-seekers with their basic information. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Currently there are about 3,000 seniors waiting for one of the 120 volunteers to help them. To boost its efforts, the group is also encouraging younger Facebook users to pitch in and help their older relatives navigate the online systems.

“We are very proud of how we have been able to help, but it has been overwhelming,” Quirk said.

Group members’ inboxes are filled with emails thanking them for their assistance and displaying photos of strangers with their sleeves rolled up as they prepare to receive the coveted shots.

Georgie DeNitto cried after a volunteer told her over the phone that she would receive a shot in the next two days. The 72-year-old Wellington, Florida, resident said her 14-year-old grandson called her after she got vaccinated.

“He said ‘I can’t wait, because I haven’t seen you and now you can come over to my house,’’ DeNitto said, her voice heavy with emotion. “And he lives like eight minutes away.”

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Similar volunteer groups have popped up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and would-be volunteers in Georgia and Southern California have sought advice on establishing them in those states, Schwartz said.

Florida state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, is concerned the majority of the vaccines in her state seem to be available through online platforms, and that local officials are overly relying on social networks to alert constituents of vaccine availability.

She says that the systems not only negatively affects seniors, but also exacerbate income and racial disparities. Eskamani says wealthier communities are already seeing greater vaccination coverage than lower-income neighborhoods.

“There should be robo-dialing, there should be door knocking. We should be going into communities,” she said. “People feel it’s like a gameshow, like a race and it shouldn’t be like that. It should be a more thoughtful and strategic approach that is centralized.”

A new online system launched last Friday by the state government for residents to preregister for coronavirus vaccine appointments has aimed to centralize efforts, but it does not match people to all the different places where they could get a vaccine.

Meanwhile, vaccines are going to waste. Last week, Florida state officials acknowledged that 3,344 doses of vaccine were spoiled, in part because they were not used fast enough before the medicine went bad.

Volunteers like Greenberg, Schwartz and Quirk are helping to change that. They have become the first point of contact now for some vaccination providers who count on them to find patients who can show up at the last minute to receive leftover doses that otherwise would have to be thrown out.

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On a recent evening, Greenberg was able to quickly enlist 105 seniors for a vaccine clinic the following day at a community center in Hollywood, Florida, where officials worried about not being able to use leftover doses.

Another time, she tracked down a man who had written a letter to the editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel because he hadn’t been able to book an appointment for his 65-year-old wife, who suffers from acute respiratory distress syndrome.

“We are just trying to get shots in arms,” Greenberg said. “It is rare to find somewhere you can volunteer where you feel so connected to the people you are helping.”