As Florida struggles to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to its large population of retirees, a Facebook page started by a married couple in Parkland is helping senior citizens navigate the confusing process and get shots.
Russ Schwartz and Katherine Quirk launched South Florida COVID-19 Vaccination Info on Jan. 1, after learning that the state planned to require citizens to make online appointments to get vaccinated. They immediately realized that seniors like their parents were going to face challenges using that interface.
“We started talking about what we needed to do and what we realized very quickly … that we really needed to bridge that technology gap and really help seniors have a place that they could go to learn about how to get the vaccine,” Quirk, a pediatric hematology and oncology nurse in Fort Lauderdale, told Yahoo News.
Since late December, Florida has been vaccinating residents 65 or older. With more than 4.3 million residents who fit that description, the rollout has proved chaotic, with demand far outpacing supply, and massive lines and residents traveling across the state in search of a shot.
As do other states, Florida relies on an online system to distribute information and to schedule vaccination appointments. This medium, Quirk says, is not ideal for this age group.
“The seniors come from a time where they waited in line to get a polio vaccination, and they just went down the line and got the vaccine. It’s much different now. … Most seniors don’t know how to log into the system, create a profile, secure the appointment, go to this email or go to this web address or call this phone number,” Quirk said.
The Facebook page Quirk and Schwartz started now has more than 21,000 members. It is a clearinghouse of information about who is eligible, where vaccinations are being offered and, most important, since the supply is limited, when exactly to call or log in to the vaccine websites to secure an appointment. The couple estimates that since they launched the effort, they have been able to help more than 1,000 seniors get vaccinated.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk for severe illness with COVID-19 increases with age, with older adults at highest risk. Roughly eight in 10 of the more than 452,000 Americans who have died of the disease in the U.S. were over 65.
Even for those seniors adept with technology, securing an appointment has been challenging, Schwartz said. Due to the high demand, many of the state and county vaccination sign-up websites have crashed under the weight of tremendous traffic, and health department phone lines have been overwhelmed with the high volume of calls.
Schwartz, who is an elementary school principal in Broward County, says that he and Quirk soon realized that offering vaccine information on their Facebook page wasn’t enough, so they began booking appointments for people.
“We were booking the few people that were reaching out to us, but we realized that we weren’t the only ones doing that,” Schwartz said. “So we kind of started bringing in people that had a similar vision to us and we kind of formed a team.”
That team, which has now more than 100 volunteers, can assist those 65 or older who are unable to book appointments on their own. For those who are interested in this service, the group created a Google form, which can be completed by a loved one. Volunteers can then call on the seniors’ behalf or log in online to book appointments for them.
The project has become a second full-time job for the couple, who have also expanded their efforts to other counties in the state beyond South Florida. They said there’s a national need for the services they are providing, so they’re also offering guidance to volunteers in other states who have requested their help in order to start similar efforts in their communities. So far, Schwartz said, people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley have launched their own Facebook support pages. Volunteers in Pennsylvania, Atlanta and Southern California have also expressed interest in starting similar support groups.
“Those are the ones we know about. I mean, I’m hoping that there’s more out there too,” Schwartz said.
Confusion about how to get COVID-19 vaccines is a nationwide problem. (For information on who is eligible by state, the AARP created this helpful guide.) In response, tech-savvy volunteers across the country like Quirk and Schwartz have stepped in, creating a slew of online guides.
These websites and Facebook pages, Schwartz said, are often more helpful than the web portals and hotlines set up by their state and local jurisdictions. In California, a group of engineers created VaccinateCA, a crowdfunded site that allows users to search for hospitals and pharmacies offering vaccinations based on their ZIP code or region.
Quirk says it’s been rewarding to see people coming together and helping to make a positive impact on their communities’ efforts to end the pandemic.
“We really have seen the goodness of people in our group. We have seen people that have come together and want to help and want to give back. They want their neighbor to get an appointment. And really just a level of kindness that is so refreshing to see and be a part of,” Quirk said.
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