Sometimes, it takes a virtual village.
A local volunteer grassroots movement has started online, offering help to those who qualify to receive the COVID-19 vaccine but struggle to find appointments.
Marissa Weisblatt first became aware of the difficulties some seniors are having with vaccine appointments when she tried to help family members in Pennsylvania and Florida.
“I was helping my 80-year-old grandparents, so you can imagine that they weren’t apt to jump on a computer and wait to refresh web pages and figure out these ways of doing things,” Weisblatt said.
She found there was no consistent system from county to county, pharmacy to pharmacy, or location to location.
“Once I found a system that I was able to understand, I started talking to some of my friends who are of like minds and trying to help people as well,” said Weisblatt, a small business owner with Nu Creative Co.and mother of two. “We were just trying to share some tips about how to get into these systems to be able to assist people who were searching for the vaccine.”
Despite her hectic schedule, Weisblatt, whose husband is Rabbi Jeremy Weisblatt, spiritual leader of Temple Ohav Shalom in Allison Park, found time to do what some others could not: scour the internet looking for vaccine appointments, using multiple computers. She shared her findings on Facebook groups like Jewish Pittsburgh and Getting Pittsburgh Vaccinated – COVID-19 Appointment Tip Page, co-created by her friend Liz Huber.
Huber was stymied by what she found online when she went to help her parents secure appointments. There were no directions, she said.
“Even today, it’s not clear how to get an appointment,” she said. “So, I was just trying to share information on what we were learning and how it was changing every day.”
Getting Pittsburgh Vaccinated became a place for Huber and her friends Leighann Bacher and Heather Lucci to post information about vaccine clinics, PDFs, resources for seniors and tips they gleaned from their research. Since its creation on Jan. 31, 2021, about 20,000 people have become members.
Both Huber and Weisblatt recognize the people they are trying to help — seniors who are not computer savvy — may not be on Facebook. The goal, they said, is to reach the children and grandchildren who are attempting to find appointments for them.
“It’s very frustrating if you don’t know how to navigate computers,” Huber said.
When Community Day School parents learned that some teachers at the institution were having trouble getting vaccine appointments, they banded together to help by sending tips and information to CDS staff member, Jill Braasch.
“It started out with them telling me, ‘We found out this great information,’ and me spreading it around as fast as I could,” Braasch said.
She said the parents were eager to help because they knew that teachers were working with their children all day and did not have time to click on and refresh web pages.
The parents also actively posted on pages like the one created by Huber, Braasch said.
The input has given teachers a sense of relief. “Just knowing that it’s taken care of means they can breathe and take care of other things, like kids,” Braasch said.
Nina Butler, director of Bikur Cholim of Pittsburgh, has been helping Squirrel Hill residents find vaccine appointments by distributing information through email.
Several times a day, she sends out messages with updates on where vaccines are available, as well as potential vaccine reactions and ideas for working with specific insurance companies.
“Squirrel Hill has a high proportion of elderly residents,” Butler said. “With the scarcity of COVID vaccine, and seniors’ limited familiarity with technology for online registration, matching seniors with vaccine appointments has been anything but a smooth process.”
Younger tech-savvy community members have helped these seniors secure appointments.
“Bikur Cholim connects those who need appointments with these computer whizzes and their teams, who reserve appointments,” Butler said.
Butler, through her role with Bikur Cholim, also has advocated for community members at local vaccination sites. The Squirrel Hill resident approached the pharmacy manager at a local Giant Eagle, explaining that neighborhood seniors were being sent to other Giant Eagle branches an hour or two away and were having issues getting appointments without email or cell phones.
She said that the pharmacy manager said, “These are my people and I must help.”
He then did the necessary work to secure vaccinations for several on Butler’s list.
“COVID brought a lot of pain and hardship,” Butler said. “It also brought out some angels.”
Weisblatt said the crisis has proven a universal truth: “I think this has shown us that we need each other,” she said. “The irony is that we have been so separated. I think that this past year has shown that in order to be able to come back together, we need each other.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.