For weeks, Danielle Otero clicked on COVID-19 vaccine appointment websites, refreshing pages, to get her relatives lined up for a shot.
Even though she was successful — some had to go to Allentown, but a shot’s a shot — she couldn’t help but think about the many older members of her Elkins Park Jewish community who didn’t have her computer savvy.
So she decided to do something about it.
Teaming up with friends Sarah Levin and Rebecca Klinger from Beth Sholom Congregation, Otero started connecting older members of their community with appointments. Otero taught Levin and Klinger the tricks of the trade — which websites to check for appointments and when to check them, which Facebook pages to follow.
With cases funneled to them through Beth Sholom and the Kehillah of Old York Road, Otero, Levin and Klinger have made appointments for about 65 people and have at least that many on their waiting list.
Otero, a mother of three, formerly provided her expertise in international pandemic preparedness to the Department of Defense. Though she’s not employed now, she’s bringing that strategic thinking to this community vaccine project.
“Not a lot of sleep is happening, but we’re getting a lot of appointments for people,” she said. “People are very, very thankful, and I’m happy to help.”
She stressed that the work they do is intended for members of their community only.
Otero, Levin and Klinger have been inundated with stories from immunocompromised cancer survivors, transplant survivors and others with complex medical histories “who really should be the first in line for the vaccine,” Otero said. Helping them out is not just pointing and clicking: The choices inherent in the process can be overwhelming, and Pennsylvania is far behind other states in terms of vaccine distribution, making appointments hard to get.
“It feels like a ‘Hunger Games’ situation,” said Klinger.
Dan Shmilovich, who has known Otero for years through their synagogue, praised her efforts in pursuing appointments for his older parents and immunocompromised brother.
“She’s kind of like a hawk,” Shmilovich said. “She’s checking the websites early morning, at night, around the clock, as far as I know.” She ended up finding appointments for them — but two hours away.
Such stories are common on social media, where groups offering emotional support alongside blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appointment leads have cropped up nationwide. Some groups focus on cities and counties, while others tackle whole regions.
“PA CoVID Vaccine Match Maker,” a Facebook group covering the southeastern part of the state, has more than 27,000 members. Posters are either “#Finders” or “#Seekers.” There’s a sidebar with PDFs, Word documents and a spreadsheet with names like “DELCO_VACCINE_LINKS.xlsx” and “weis_pharmacies_with_vaccine_by_city_0.pdf.”
Members post frequently; some express frustration with their lack of success, and others their gratitude for the help they’ve received. Notifications that appointments are available come with the tone of a breathless courier: “Lake Ariel, PA RITE AID!!!!!”
Lafayette Hill’s Ilene Schafer and her husband Marshall have medical conditions that qualify them for the vaccine, but getting an appointment has been like trying to get Springsteen tickets in the old days of Ticketmaster, Ilene Schafer said. They’ve had no luck using “PA CoVID Vaccine Match Maker.”
“It feels totally patchwork,” she said. “Everybody’s doing their own thing. There’s no coordination. There’s no central database. There’s no central anything. It’s like the Wild West trying to get an appointment.”
About 44 million Americans are at least partially vaccinated, according to the New York Times. At the current pace, 90% of the population will have received at least one dose of the vaccine by Christmas. Some of those people will have a trio of friends in Elkins Park to thank — and they’re not stopping their work anytime soon.
“Until we stop getting names from the community, I’m not really putting a limit on it,” Otero said.