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Volunteers Help Seniors Beat the Mad Scramble for Vaccines
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Volunteers Help Seniors Beat the Mad Scramble for Vaccines

Synagogues and community organizers cut through red tape to get doses to the vulnerable.

Hannah Dreyfus is a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week. She covers abuses of power in non-profit and religious settings. She heads up the Investigative Journalism Fund, an initiative to fill a gap in investigative and enterprise reporting. Reach her at hannah@jewishweek.org

Arlene Radmin, 85, a grandmother and Manhattan resident, was the first resident of New York to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center erected at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, Jan. 13, 2021. Limited supply and red tape have made getting the vaccine a challenge for area seniors. (U.S. Air National Guard/Maj. Michael O’Hagan)
Arlene Radmin, 85, a grandmother and Manhattan resident, was the first resident of New York to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center erected at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, Jan. 13, 2021. Limited supply and red tape have made getting the vaccine a challenge for area seniors. (U.S. Air National Guard/Maj. Michael O’Hagan)

Ruthie Levi, a 62-year-old business owner from Teaneck, New Jersey, compared getting an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine to scoring Bruce Springsteen tickets. 

“There were so few spots, and they got taken so quickly. Chasing the vaccine became like chasing the holy grail,” Levi said. 

Seniors aged 65 and over, deemed eligible by the state of New Jersey last month to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, were some of the least equipped to navigate the competitive online system. 

Levi, a natural community organizer in Teaneck’s large Jewish community, decided to step in. After recruiting about 50 volunteers through social media and her networks (“20 phone people and 30 computer people”), she began publicizing their availability to assist seniors in signing up for the vaccine. She called the initiative #OperationVaxTeaneckSeniors on Facebook.

In just over three weeks in operation, the group helped over 600 Teaneck seniors sign up for appointments. 

“The phone’s been ringing off the hook,” Levi said. “My goal is to keep the elderly out of local hospitals, and this was the way I could contribute to that goal.”

With the vaccine supply so limited, seniors across the New York metropolitan area have found themselves desperate for appointments. Many need help navigating the complicated digital mazes that are the New York and New Jersey online signup systems.

Ruthie Levi of Teaneck organized a network of volunteers to help seniors get Covid-19 vaccines. (Facebook)

Across the Jewish community, grassroots initiatives have sprung up to help meet the need. 

“It’s not just that it’s hard for some older people to navigate websites and online forms — it has to do with timing,” a community volunteer from The Jewish Center on the Upper West Side said. She’s been organizing the synagogue’s efforts to assist seniors (she requested not to be named for privacy reasons.) “Many of the websites posting vaccine availability post spots late at night when older people are usually sleeping.” 

That, in addition to the lack of a centralized system for signing up — it’s a “hodgepodge of different websites,” Levi said — has meant seniors losing out on opportunities to receive the vaccine. 

At The Jewish Center, a group of volunteers — mainly in their 20s — quickly rallied to set up a system matching seniors with vaccine appointments. Communicating via WhatsApp, the group helped over 100 seniors sign up for appointments over the last two weeks. 

Scarcity and red tape has made the scramble that much harder. According to the main New York state website for COVID-19 information, the federal government has given New York approximately 300,000 vaccines per week for over 7 million people who are eligible. 

LiveOn New York, a nonsectarian nonprofit serving the city’s elderly, complained recently that a “lack of coordination with community-based organizations that are often sources of trust to marginalized populations widen the gap in the vaccine distribution.” That gap is particularly wide among elderly people of color, who are receiving vaccines at rates far lower than their percentage of the population. 

“For too many older New Yorkers, the vaccine remains inaccessible, trapped behind a labyrinth of websites or behind hold music with no end in sight,” according to LiveOn.

Community groups and volunteers are trying to fill the breach. The Teaneck initiative has been reaching out to the township’s churches, mosques and other cultural and religious communities to share their budding expertise.

I email, call and text links for vaccine appointments as I hear about them from community members.

Paris Stulbach, a community volunteer from the Upper West Side’s Lincoln Square Synagogue who helped set up a system to assist local seniors with vaccine appointments, said the process is “pretty simple.” 

“I email, call and text links for vaccine appointments as I hear about them from community members,” she said. 

Stulbach said she’s found that people are quick to “take advantage for themselves, but also, crucially, tell their friends and neighbors” about the appointments. 

“Sometimes [seniors] just tell mates to tag along when they go to their appointments, and voila, people get vaccinated,” said Stulbach, who has helped several hundred seniors book appointments. “Nothing more to it. I’m the delivery system.”

Stulbach said she’s “grateful” to volunteers and community leaders who “share their tricks and updates, especially with the city waiting for fresh supply and many online sources showing no availability.” 

RESOURCES

The Jewish Center Covid Vaccine Resource Page has links to essential information and contact information for its JC Vaccine Task Force.

Dorot, a Jewish nonprofit serving the elderly, has a COVID-19 page that includes resources for making a COVID-19 vaccine appointment.

Selfhelp, a UJA-Federation of New York partner serving Holocaust survivors and other elderly New Yorkers, is helping clients answer screening questions, schedule appointments and arranging transportation to the vaccination site when needed.

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