“Can you talk about something else besides vaccines?” my friend Jeff said on the phone.
I guess he could think about something else because he lives in California, where the vaccine rollout is smooth and he can simply wait for his doctor to call him when it’s his turn.
But I can’t talk about anything else, not in New York, whose system is so labyrinthian it’s forced people to compete for appointments like it’s “The Hunger Games,” or to simply give up in frustration. There’s the state Web site, the city Web site, separate applications for Rite Aid, CVS and Walgreens, not to mention hospitals, smaller pharmacies and mysterious sites that seem to drop hundreds of doses in the middle of the night.
During the pandemic, some people were baking bread, others were organizing their closets, but now, a growing number of people are trying to help strangers secure vaccine appointments.
For me, it started back in January, when I learned people over 75 would qualify in New York. I tried to help my mother in Riverdale, my father-in-law in Queens and my brother-in-law’s father in Washington Heights find appointments. It was a good thing, because within a few days the system opened up to 65-year-olds, and then to people with comorbidities — a positive development, surely, except that it left New York’s elderly and people without computers (or computer literacy) shot-less.
Soon I joined a Facebook group called New York/Connecticut Vaccine Hunters and Angels, or VaccineAngel.com, started by Joel Leyden, who has helped hundreds online and dozens offline.
“I created VaccineAngel.com because I had the cyber and social media training to reach thousands,” Leyden said about making appointments for eligible people (with first priority to the elderly and first responders), as well as helping others seek excess vaccines that might otherwise be discarded.
“I knew that a professional group would save vaccines and save lives.”
Groups like these not only share links to available sites and vaccines, but tips and tricks: like what exact time the state releases appointments (three minutes on the half hour) or which auto-refresher extension to install on your browser so you don’t have to break your thumb pressing the same “update” button.
After I started making appointments for eligible Facebook friends — one with a heart problem, another who was a cancer survivor and had a parent hospitalized with COVID — I realized I understood how to navigate the system, and could do it for other eligible people, too. (My biggest coup among the 30 strangers: getting an 85-year-old couple from The Bronx vaccinated.)
I’m no hero. I just want this pandemic to be over. And, as a journalist/crusader who likes to battle the system and institutions in order to improve them, I also take immense satisfaction in fighting for the little guy — and by “little guy” I mean everyone in New York who is sitting on hold for hours only to be told there are no available appointments.
And I’m not the only one.
“In the middle of a pandemic, when life is slow, it’s unbelievably gratifying to find something besides my day-to-day that’s challenging and helpful,” said Dana Siegal, a vaccine hunter who has aided dozens of people, including a few elderly women who can’t travel far.
“It’s the most I’ve talked to strangers in a year … I wish I could find more people to help!”
This rush — getting e-mails of gratitude from strangers, seeing photos of vaccinated people, finally having a sense of purpose and urgency — is indeed satisfying … and mildly addicting.
Some “Vaccine Angels” report having dreams of auto-refreshing a Web site page, others say they feel like any phone call that isn’t with a vaccine hotline is a waste of time, and a few admit that helping people is becoming a competitive sport.
“Don’t you think you should stop now?” my husband said when he came home to find our young daughter eating dinner in front of the TV … and me still talking to someone on the Vaccine Hotline.
“I will stop,” I promised my husband, as I kept searching for someone’s father, who lives on what we call “The Dreaded Long Island,” due to its dearth of availability.
“I just have to give it one more shot.”
Amy Klein is a writer living in NYC. Follow her on Twitter @AmydKlein and on Instagram.