CLARK, NJ – An army of volunteers hits the internet daily on a quest to find COVID-19 vaccinations. What makes these individuals “vaccine angels” has everything to do with them booking appointments for complete strangers.

“I got started with the process when I spoke with my 82-year-old neighbor, and she told me she was having trouble making an appointment,” said Clark resident Amy Heller. “Once I found out what needed to be done, I immediately understood why people were having problems.”

Looking to make a difference, Heller joined a Facebook page called New Jersey Covid Vaccine Information.The public group had 8,000 members at the end of January and is now approaching 40,000 followers. Some are folks desperately searching for assistance. Others volunteer to offer their services. 

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The founder of WGirls Inc., Heller’s organization focuses on empowering women and children in underserved communities through fundraising, volunteerism, and outreach. The group has already played a role in the coronavirus by sourcing PPE for front line healthcare providers.

Heller admitted that she was impressed by the number of people who expressed a desire to help others. She decided to integrate her background in organizing volunteers and setting up processes to streamline the booking of appointments. This entailed setting up sections for different counties, divvying up volunteers, and creating an intake form.

The intake form, which is available here, makes an important statement. The goal is to connect the small set of volunteers with those who are seeking to identify and support individuals who don’t have anyone else to help them.

Last month, an announcement made by the Ocean County Commissioners brought the grim news of a reduction in vaccine allocations. Though county residents are afforded first preference, many ultimately book appointments in other parts of the state.

A Barnegat senior’s wife became extremely frustrated when she could not find a vaccine for her husband. She tried on her own to make an appointment and came across an offer that touched her heart.

“I lost my dad to COVID in October 2020, and I want to make sure people don’t have to go through what my family has been through,” shared Maria Cook. “I’m happy to help any senior that is not very savvy with the web, or children of those seniors (like me) who are desperate to take care of their parents.”

Cook’s post resulted in many offering condolences and others grateful for the undertaking in her father’s honor. The 72-year-old Barnegat man traveled today to Tabernacle for his first shot. Cook feels confident that her dad would be proud she is helping others in his memory.

Long Beach Island resident Lindsey Meneses began grocery runs for Ocean County seniors when the coronavirus first surfaced last year. She befriended those she helped and stepped up when they shared their latest COVID-19 related dilemma. Meneses first figured the problem was more about navigating the online process for her technologically challenged seniors. She then discovered that the supply demand made it tedious to find a slot for even those with computer expertise. Websites routinely crashed with the onslaught of eligible people looking to set up appointments.

Research provided Meneses with some tips that also led her to the 'New Jersey Covid Vaccine Information' Facebook page.

“We’d like to see people even ask for help from younger family members who are accustomed to using the computer,” said Meneses. “Some of the kids have even created Twitter bots that let them know where appointments are available.”

Both Cook and Meneses joined the list of volunteers organized by Heller. The group has received over 400 requests since it went live 48 hours ago.

Ocean County serves as home to over 200,000 seniors, whose age alone makes them high risk. Many do not use smart devices or computers and are more adept at setting up appointments by calling their local doctor. Vaccine eligibility meant nothing without the means of booking a date for the potentially lifesaving shot.

Meanwhile, Ocean County officials understand the concerns faced by its population.  The county serves as home to over 600,000 residents and has the largest number of seniors throughout the state.

“This pandemic is changing week by week,” said Gary Quinn, director of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners. “We are trying to stay ahead of the curve and make changes as we see the problems come to us.”

Quinn acknowledged that individuals trying to reach the Ocean County Health Department experienced delays. The county recently hired a company to handle phone and computer requests on an expedited basis.

The outside company gives board of health employees more flexibility in manning both COVID-19 test locations and vaccine sites. Nurses who have the ability to volunteer their time are in demand to 'get shots in arms.' Ocean County makes use of every vaccination available for distribution.

“Saturday, we had our biggest day ever,” Quinn shared. “We did 1,530 shots in Toms River and 300 at Southern Regional Middle School.”

According to Quinn, the Offices of Senior Services also has a phone line available for people who don’t have the ability to use the computer to make appointments.  The Office of Senior Services  helps residents with other services unrelated to vaccinations.

Government intervention and random acts of kindness should result in some sense of eventual normalcy. Seniors confined to home for the last 11 months look to the days when they can hug their grandchildren. “Vaccine angels” hope to bring them that glimmer of hope.

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