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When tech support is life or death: Family and strangers mobilize to get seniors vaccinated

Stefanie Thompson tried for three weeks to help her parents and stepmother, each of whom have preexisting medical conditions, register for appointments to get a Covid-19 vaccine. She called reservation hotlines and woke up early to attempt signing them up on pharmacy and hospital websites. No luck.

Then one night while scrolling Facebook, she happened upon a group called “South Florida COVID-19 Vaccination Info,” which had a post promising to help secure a spot for a vaccine for the first 10 people to respond.

“I sent some basic information along and by the morning, I had a text from someone who said, ‘Can you bring them down to Jackson [Health] this morning?'” said Thompson. “It was surreal because I had been exploring every avenue and then all of a sudden, I had appointment confirmations. I was petrified but hoped it was real out of complete desperation.”

Covid-19 scams are prevalent, many of which ask for Social Security numbers or credit cards (neither are ever required). But Thompson had discovered something genuine: a group of volunteers on Facebook logging long hours to get people like her family vaccinated. Nearly 24 hours after that text message, both parents and her stepmother were vaccinated.

“I was completely amazed,” said her 75-year-old mother Sandra Wortzel, who has never been on Facebook. “I’m not super good on the computer — and it’s been so difficult for me and other older people to manage this process — but I am so thankful to be vaccinated.”

Across the country, an informal infrastructure is emerging to help seniors, one of the most at risk groups, get access to the vaccines. Call it a new kind of tech support, but with life or death stakes. Volunteers are using Facebook groups, 1-800 hotlines and one-on-one concierge services to help seniors navigate the complicated registration process. At the same time, children and grandchildren are stepping in to help, refreshing appointment websites the way some would for concert tickets.

The existence of these services highlights a key shortcoming in the initial vaccine rollout: Seniors, who are among the first to be able to make appointments online for vaccines, may also be less tech literate and have less access to the internet. According to a 2019 report from the Pew Research Center, about 30% of people age 65 and over in the United States don’t use the internet and 40% don’t have home broadband access. Moreover, with reports of registration sites crashing, spots filling up in minutes and the challenges of finding the right links and forms, even those who are internet-savvy may still struggle.

Florida, in particular, demonstrates the headaches and confusion of this process. It was one of the first states to make vaccines available to those 65 and older. Some counties initially leaned on tools like Eventbrite, a ticketing platform normally used for reserving spots at concerts and conferences, to help distribute vaccines. Then counties began warning about fraudulent postings on the platform. Further complicating matters for residents, there were also reports that people were flying to Florida from other states, and even other countries, to get the vaccine.

Katherine Quirk, a nurse, and her fiancé Russell Schwartz launched the South Florida Facebook page in January after experiencing first hand the challenges of getting Schwartz’s parents registered for a vaccine. They started sharing alerts on the page whenever they discovered certain vaccine sites had openings, based on researching, calling and refreshing medical websites. They also posted insider “tips” Quirk learned from being in the medical community, such as if a center was quietly accepting walk-ins following no-show appointments.

But when spots opened, they’d fill up immediately. So the couple created a waitlist, collecting names and basic information, such as birthdays and addresses, from Facebook members of the group. Then they would register those people when appointments became available. With the help of a few volunteers, the couple claim they’ve booked “thousands” of appointments in the past few weeks.

“We want to keep going with this after vaccines become available for more,” Quirk said. “All we want is people to get shots in arms.”

They’re not alone. The Association of the Aging in New York, which connects seniors to services in their communities that help them live independently, has dedicated teams of full-time staffers answering its hotline to get the elderly registered. For seniors with no access to technology, the nonprofit takes it a step further: an employee will not only help them find a vaccine facility but they’ll fill out, print and even take the necessary paperwork to their homes ahead of their appointments.

“I don’t have a working email or a cell phone, so there’s no way I would have been able to register by myself or get the vaccine as quickly … without their help,” said 82-year-old Sally Ebeling from Canton, New York, who has not left her property since February 2020 and used the Association of the Aging to book her appointment. “I go in for my shot on Tuesday. A volunteer is picking me up to drive me to the drug store,” she said.

Candoo Tech, a monthly tech support and training service for older adults, is offering one-hour remote sessions for $45 with their specialists, many of whom are former workers of Apple’s Genius Bar and Best Buy’s Geek Squad, to help with the vaccine registration process. This may include filling out online forms for seniors over the phone or remotely installing a Google Chrome extension that automatically refreshes a webpage every few seconds or minutes.

Some senior citizens are also getting technical support from a more familiar source: their grandchildren. Missy Perez, a social media manager for the Philadelphia Phillies, said she spent the better part of a work meeting earlier this month refreshing a webpage to register her grandmother and dad in Florida. But the site kept crashing.

“My grandmother had called earlier that morning frustrated and in tears with her attempts to log on, eventually receiving a message that she’d been locked out from trying too many times — a message she thought was specifically for her, not realizing many others were in the same boat,” Perez told CNN Business.

Her whole family pitched in, including Missy’s sister who waited on hold for an hour before she got disconnected. “I multitasked and opened the link mid-Zoom call. I was so excited to have gotten through that I screamed, off mute, to my mom who came running over.” Her mother unknowingly stood in the background of the camera shot as they worked quickly to fill out the forms.

“Luckily, I work with really wonderful people, so when I explained to the group what I was doing, they were so supportive, cheering me on via Zoom,” she said. “They hooted and hollered as we shored up the two appointment times.”

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