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Facebook Group Helps South Florida Seniors Book Vaccine Appointments

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The Facebook group has grown to 16,000 members across the state since starting earlier this month.

An estimated 100 volunteers are helping book appointments through the Facebook page, including translators for Spanish, Creole and Portuguese.

Between calling overwhelmed hospitals, logging on to crashing websites and monitoring press conferences, many seniors in South Florida continue to have issues finding appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine.

By the time New Year’s Day came around, Katherine Quirk and Russ Schwartz decided enough was enough. That was the day the Parkland couple started a Facebook group called South Florida COVID-19 Vaccination Info.

The idea for the group was simple: South Florida needed a single clearinghouse of information about which places had the vaccine available, and perhaps most importantly when to call or log in to connect with them.

Currently, the couple estimates the effort has helped over 1,000 seniors get vaccine appointments.

“We started out South Florida and it quickly morphed into every part of Florida,” said Quirk, a nurse at Broward Health.

Helping people book appointments in Broward County quickly expanded to Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, which then expanded to Indian River, Collier and beyond.

The group has grown to 16,000 members across the state since starting earlier this month.

Quirk and Schwartz also created a Google form that any user can fill out for a loved one who is 65 years old or older. A group of volunteers will then make calls and log in to the websites as vaccine appointment slots open up and make the appointments for them.

At the start it was only Quirk and Schwartz, but now an estimated 100 volunteers are helping book appointments, including translators for Spanish, Creole and Portuguese.

“What we didn’t realize was gonna happen was that we’ve been connecting a lot with the children of the seniors and the grandchildren who want to help their family member who lives in South Florida,” said Schwartz, the principal of Nova Blanche Forman Elementary School in Davie.

Quirk and Schwartz have been engaged since before the pandemic, but they had had to reschedule their wedding date four times already due to safety concerns.

The couple says that the service they’re providing has nothing to do with politics. Both expressed exhaustion with politics after a bruising presidential election and an economic downturn brought about by the pandemic. In fact, political discussions are banned in the Facebook group.

Both said they just want to help seniors connect to the appointments they need and express frustration with high-tech logistical solutions that tend to leave seniors — the only age group, beyond certain workers and people with underlying conditions, currently eligible for the vaccine — behind.

Some hospital systems and government agencies have primarily taken to posting relevant information on Twitter, for example.

“[These seniors] grew up in a time where everybody waited for a polio vaccine, and somebody came down the line and gave them a shot in the arm, and that’s how they got vaccinated. So to think that they are going to somehow know to find the phone numbers, know how to find the websites, know how to even know when to go, where to go — how to open an email to get the confirmation to get the QR code,” said Quirk, trailing off and listing more technological roadblocks for senior citizens.

“They have enough challenges with figuring out how to sort the Facebook page. I mean, I’ve had to do tutorials where I circle the ‘sort’ button so that you can find the information,” she said.

For people who fill out the form, the group tries to follow a “first-come, first-served” approach.

“We do give that little caveat where it depends on availability and obviously availability is low and demand is high, so it might take a little time till we get to you,” said Schwartz.

Rather than partisan bickering and finger pointing, the online space has become a site for citizen-to-citizen problem solving in a way that feels refreshing, said Quirk.

“Having a place for camaraderie and support, and people just being grateful and thankful is so nice. And I think it’s really brought our community together," she said.

Some visitors to the Facebook page have set up similar pages in New York and New Jersey, which Quirk and Schwartz hold up as evidence that the problems facing Florida’s roll-out of the vaccines are not unique.

At the same time, the couple is aware that their efforts will not plug all of the gaps that exist in getting equal access to the vaccine.

“We know that we’re reaching a lot of seniors, we’re reaching a lot of people,” Quirk said. “But I think we also sit there and think — what about the people that aren’t on Facebook? What’s happening with them?”
Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM.

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