Last month Ellen and Gary Goldberg, retirees who live in Bellmore, Long Island, spent three fraught days trying to get appointments for a COVID-19 vaccination. Every website they checked recommended trying again in March. They called the hotlines for New York state and Nassau County, but both were jammed with calls.
Gary Goldberg, 75, then came across a stranger’s post in a neighbourhood Facebook group: “If anyone has a family member, friend or knows someone who is elderly and needs help preregistering or registering online for the COVID-19 vaccine, I am happy to help,” it said. The person was not asking for money and said, “I don’t care how long it takes.”
Goldberg wanted to contact the stranger immediately, but his wife was more sceptical.
“You have to give your personal information to make appointments,” she said. “A lot of people get targeted for scams when they are elderly.”
But her husband won the debate and reached out to the stranger, Harriet Diamantidis, a 36-year-old executive assistant who lives in nearby Merrick. Within a few hours, Diamantidis had procured appointments for the couple at Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn.
Ellen Goldberg, 73, remained sceptical until she and her husband showed up at the high school, she said. “But we both got our vaccine, and we even have follow-up appointments for the second dose on Feb. 27.”
The Goldbergs have stayed in touch with Diamantidis, who, it turns out, visits the same community pool they do in the summer.
“I told her I wanted to send her something, but she wouldn’t accept it,” Gary Goldberg said. “So now I’ve decided I will buy her a pretzel and a soda at the pool.”
Getting an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine in New York state requires persistence, luck and, arguably, above-average computer skills. There are multiple websites and often a two-step verification process. Appointments are scarce; sitting in front of a computer and hitting “refresh” hundreds of times a day has become a new pandemic ritual.
But several New Yorkers are willing to do this for those who can’t, even for those they don’t know at all. For some it’s a way to help their city get back on track. For others, it’s a means of finding inspiration, meaning and community during a lonely, dreary time.
Diamantidis got the idea to volunteer after helping her grandmother, 96, and mother, 71, get appointments last month. During the process, she said, she couldn’t stop thinking about other New Yorkers who didn’t have family members or friends to help them. So she posted her offer on Facebook.
Within an hour, she had received some 15 requests. That first night, she stayed up until 2 am making appointments for people like the Goldbergs.
“At first my husband was like, ‘What are you doing?’” she said. But after hearing her on the phone with a New Yorker who seemed befuddled and lost, he decided to help, too. For many, they set up first-time Gmail addresses so they could easily validate accounts. “We lost count of how many appointments we made after 300,” she said.
After Oriyan Gitig successfully signed up her mother — and many of her mother’s friends — for vaccines by setting her alarm every night for 11:55 pm and then snagging as many appointments that came available at midnight as possible, she realised what people were up against.
Gitig, a 44-year-old lawyer, reached out to a local synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun, which resulted in the recruitment of about 35 volunteers, each one matched with two or three New Yorkers who needed help.
Günther Krumminga, 77, a retired journalist, and his wife, Robin Sanders, a television producer, managed to navigate the maddening appointment system themselves. Once they had emerged triumphant, they decided to help others.
“It is very tedious, very annoying and very disappointing for hours and hours, because you go from place to place and see no appointments,” he said. “But we did it, and now we can pass that on to others.”
Krumminga does have privacy concerns. “You need personal data from people to fill out these applications,” he said. “Do people give us their information? We have to figure out how that works.”
Efforts are also underway to reach those without internet access. Paul Feiner, the town supervisor of Greenburgh in Westchester County, requested the contact information of several thousand older residents — especially those who are low-income — within his jurisdiction. He then issued a call for volunteers to reach out to each person on the list.
“I thought five people would volunteer, and we are definitely over 175 people right now,” he said. “I am blown away.”
Rebekah Hanousek-Monge, who lives in Queens, became so obsessed with booking appointments for other people (including three family members and four strangers) that she started the Facebook group Helping NYC Get Vaccinated. She and other users post websites with available slots the second they find them.
“I sit here for four to six hours at a time,” she said. “I refresh, fill out dummy applications. I manually click on all the high schools to see if there are appointments.”
Hanousek-Monge, 47, an assistant professor at Mercy College, said that roughly 100 appointments had been made by members of the group.
“When you get one, it’s like you won the lottery,” she said. “The 75-year-olds are the guinea pigs for this broken system,” she said. “And it isn’t right.”