By S. Mitra Kalita

For months now, Epicenter-NYC has been scheduling our neighbors for vaccines. This started via word of mouth and has grown exponentially to hundreds and hundreds of appointments booked. 

(Here’s our intake form; please pass it along!)

More New Yorkers qualify and, thankfully, there are more slots than ever. Yet the need is greater than ever. A Byzantine system — multiple portals, city and state sites with conflicting qualifications, confusing rules around documentation — greets the elderly, restaurant workers, disabled and others who might not have time to hit refresh refresh refresh. 

That’s where we come in. 

The secret of our sudden scale and efficiency are our volunteers, whose love of New York City and sense of purpose is inspiring. I’ll let them tell you.  

 

Kirsten Cunha

Why I volunteer: My sister was on a ventilator for nine days in November with Covid. My dad was diagnosed with Covid on January 21 (just days before his vaccine appointment). He died on Valentine’s Day. That’s me and him, pictured above. The vaccine came too late for my dad (and for so many others). I want to do everything I can to help get the vaccine into as many arms as possible. Making all these appointments has been cathartic and comforting as I wade through my grief.

Vaccine strategy: I keep all the sites open on my screen and I relentlessly refresh. You have to be patient. I like the challenge of trying to schedule for people who can only do it on certain days or times.  It is very satisfying when that appointment finally pops up!

Favorite NYC spot:  Peak fall leaf season in Central Park.

 

Myrna Suárez

Why I volunteer: As a first generation Latina-American, and lover of all things NYC, I want to help my community. This is the time for all of us to do our part to build a stronger and healthier NYC. I’m fluent in Spanish.

My vaccine strategy: I type 86 words per minute and I have developed an effective process for appointments: Be swift, be flexible and be available.

Favorite NYC spot: The Commons Chelsea Cafe, where the coffee is good, the people are great, and they love my dog.

 

Elena Tate

Why: I volunteer because the people most at risk are the ones who can’t get an appointment — people of color, essential workers, immigrants, the elderly. My husband works in a hospital and he got the virus. I want to stop it before it claims another life and vaccinating people as quickly as possible is our best chance. 

My vaccine process: I book appointments using my phone or my son’s Department of Education-issued iPad after he goes to bed because we don’t have WiFi. I get to know all the sites and different eligibility for each, then use a finder tool like nycvaccinelist.com to watch for openings. It can be time-consuming and frustrating so the key is to stay relaxed and have fun finding a match! 

Favorite spot: My community garden. Best. Tomatoes. Ever!

 

Valerie Tam

Why I volunteer: The system to book a vaccine appointment is entirely online so people who don’t know English or have access to technology are at a disadvantage. It’s important to help groups like these so people who want a vaccine can get one.

My approach: Keep refreshing the different websites every minute. Don’t give up if you aren’t able to secure a spot the first few times!

Fave restaurant: Tofu Tofu in Chinatown

 

Sarah B.

Why I volunteer: As a native New Yorker, I love this city and its people with all my heart. We won’t be protected until the most vulnerable among us are and I want to use the privileges I have to make sure other people feel as safe as they can.

Vaccine secret: Refresh, refresh, refresh. I like to use Vaccine Finder to figure out what the closest three sites are so that people don’t have to travel too far. And never pick the first appointment available in a group of appointments, as there are always more people vying for that spot.

Favorite NYC spot: During the past year, I’ve found so much peace and serenity in Greenwood Cemetery. Every season brings its own pleasures. Sylvan Water is especially nice to sit by for a break. Favorite NYC restaurant: My household lives for the rice cake fundido at Haenyeo, a Korean restaurant run by an extraordinary female chef.

 

George Hagstrom

Why: Many older friends and family struggled to navigate the system, and I started getting comfortable with it after booking appointments for them successfully. The current system puts a lot of burden on NYers, particularly those over 65 or without the flexibility to constantly watch for appointments. I felt incredible joy and relief knowing my friends and family were safe, and thought by volunteering I could bring that feeling to others. I feel grateful to be a part of this effort at Epicenter-NYC.

Vaccine secrets: It depends on who I am booking for. For same/next day I love the city-run vax hubs, and I refresh often looking for open spots due to no shows. Otherwise, knowing when new appointments drop helps save time: Tuesday/Wednesday afternoon for the vax hubs (typically) and often just after midnight for Health and Hospitals.

Fave NYC spot: Central Park North Woods is my favorite spot, and while I could list favorite restaurants for days, getting take out from Field Trip has been my go-to during the pandemic.

 

Sarah Kulkarni

Why I volunteer: I love how happy I can make someone when I send them their appointment info. It’s disappointing that the only way to book appointments is by being lightning quick and on a computer all the time.   

Vaccine secret: Multiple tabs, checking frequently. Lately, Manhattan appointments have been hardest to book, so if you definitely need/want Manhattan, the low-tech continuous refresh of the Javits site has worked for me several times in quick succession. Just quickly scroll past the first day / appointment; those are always snagged by bots. Book first and figure out if it works later. You can always cancel if it’s truly a conflict.  

Favorite NYC restaurant: Russ & Daughters has sustained my family through the pandemic, especially the wasabi roe!  

 

Vivian Tam

Why I volunteer: It’s crucial for those of us with resources and access to technology to help New Yorkers who aren’t able to navigate a complex sign-up system but need the vaccine the most.

Vaccine tip: Make sure you’re toggling between multiple platforms, use different browsers and have your information filled out so you’re ready to go once a spot opens up. It definitely takes patience and persistence.

Favorite NYC restaurant: Zest Sushi on the Lower East Side

 

John O’Neil 

Why I volunteer: I’m incredibly grateful for all the people who have worked so hard and taken so many risks that have kept my family and others safe, and for everything that’s gone into creating these amazing vaccines. It’s an honor to be able to play even a tiny role in getting this great city back on its feet. 

My vaccine tips: I set up a separate Twitter account to get alerts from TurboVax and in my regular account I follow @MarkLevineNYC for news about changes in eligibility, new batches of slots, etc.

Favorite NYC spot: Brooklyn Bridge Park is the very model of a public good. Every day the harbor is different, and in the summer seemingly every kind of person in the world comes there to have fun. 

 

Bifen Xu

Why I volunteer:  I live in Jackson Heights and was here when the outbreak was at its worst. In mid-March, I saw neighbors being wheeled into ambulance trucks. I can still remember hearing the sound of ambulance sirens go off every hour on the hour all day for a month. I just want to help our neighbors regain some sense of normalcy and to be able to see their loved ones again. 

Vaccine secrets: I’m a huge fan of shortcuts like Vaccinelist and Turbovax and just generally being aware of when appointments are being released. I have worked as a digital director (in media) so I’m pretty good at sitting at my computer hitting refresh all day long.

Fave NYC spots: Right now I love picking up takeout dinner from Aroma Brazil, treats at La Nueva Bakery, and soup dumplings for my son at Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao. I also love walking and exploring in nearby neighborhoods: Corona, Astoria, and Flushing. 

 

S. Mitra Kalita
Photo by Greg Kessler

Why: I picture my own parents in every one of the elderly immigrants we have booked. And I cannot tell you much I feel I owe restaurant workers in Queens, heroes of not just the pandemic but all that is great about our borough. 

Vaccine secret: I love the Affiliated Physicians site. Its customer service, especially for elderly or disabled New Yorkers, is efficient and compassionate. Another weird thing I’ve picked up on this journey: Because children and grandchildren often book for their loved ones (go Gen Z), they use the same email address over and over; some systems do not like that. You can insert periods into user names of gmail so the registrations stay distinct. D.eeptiPatel and DeeptiPatel and Deepti.Patel are ALL THE SAME PERSON! 

Favorite NYC spot: That moment you round the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Preserve trail to an amazing Manhattan skyline view — is from the wilds of Queens. That’s when I feel like a woman who can have it all. 

 

Eric Garcia

Why I volunteer: After finding appointments for my eligible family and friends in NYC, I realized that I’d acquired a very odd skill set — and one that I’d really only put to use for people I knew and loved. At the same time, I was keenly aware that I had the available time, the computer know-how, and the access to grab these precious appointments, and that there are large swaths of people out there who simply cannot. So I went out looking for volunteer organizations, and I’m so glad that I found the wonderful people at Epicenter. I can’t say it’s fully altruistic, because I get an amazing feeling every time I get an appointment for a person who has otherwise been unable to get their vaccine — but I figure that’s win-win, right?

Fave NYC spot: Honestly, I just like walking around the city. I’m a suburban Californian who’s spending a ton of time in NYC for work, and the feeling of the city is often exactly what I need. That said, find me great whitefish anywhere and I’m game.

My favorite vaccine story: They’ve all been great in their own way, but my favorite was probably my very first. The man I got a vaccine for was a gentleman in his late 70s (who told me he’d been a Broadway hairdresser back in the day) who, when I called to let him know that I’d gotten him an appointment for later that week, and just a few blocks away, started shaking and tearing up. He literally said “I’m shaking right now.” He’d been trying for weeks, unsuccessfully, and couldn’t believe I’d found something for him. If I hadn’t already wanted to do this work, that certainly hooked me fast!

My scheduling tip/trick: I like going to the NYCH+H site (https://covid19.nychealthandhospitals.org/UnaffiliatedHealthCareWorkers) in Incognito mode. When you click on VIEW AVAILABLE TIMES, a little pop-up box appears. If you just leave that box in the upper corner of your computer screen, you can go on with your work day and do whatever you’re doing — and the moment that times are available, they just pop up on that screen. I see the little flash of green appointment times — and then I pounce! It’s quite fun, and allows me to get work done AND vaccine hunt at the same time!

 

Kris B.

Why I volunteer: How else could I help protect the health of others from a keyboard sitting on my couch?  I especially like helping seniors and folks without speedy internet access to get a fair shot at the vaccine.  After I booked all the seniors in my own life I started signing up my neighbors- and now I am signing up anyone in need!  It is a thrill to help, I feel lucky to be in this group.

Fave NYC spot: I am a transplant to Manhattan’s UWS and I love it, well located, approachable, and cool.  But my secret pandemic getaway has been Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx! Scenic, beautiful architecture, ample parking, and totally socially distant.  If I visited Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, why not Miles Davis in NYC?  My main squeeze and I research and visit at least one grave per trip, then walk around and sightsee.  Next up: Dorothy Parker!

My scheduling tip: If the person I am helping is curious, I try to teach them to navigate the vaccination sites.  I send them links and we work on their appointment together.  Sometimes with two computers going we snag their appointment right there on the phone!  Either way, after we hang up they know how to book their own loved ones moving forward, which is a great feeling.  I tried to recreate those conversations in a tutorial for the three main websites I use (NY State and NYC and Health+Hospitals) available here: https://youtu.be/Br7PGZPZX7s

 

Devi Gupta 

Why I volunteer:  I first started by booking my friends and family which then led to giving advice on my neighborhood forum which then led to helping a stranger with her booking. The next day she turned around and helped book 12 more people and was the inspiration for continuing to pay it forward. I feel so grateful for all of the workers that have kept this city afloat. Working in the computer software industry I am very comfortable navigating technology and feel that this is how I can give back to my city.

Fave NYC spot: Exploring new paths in Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Vaccine Tips/Story: I keep 5 tabs up with my favorite sites for booking appointments and then refresh away throughout the day. If something pops up I hold my breath and click as fast as I can for a date and time. I usually go for a later date and time rather than the first, and if there are more than one spot for the same time then that’s a good one to pick. To book people together I might search on my phone and laptop at the same time. My favorite moments are when I am able to book for families that need to be together in order to help each other. My daily reward are the virtual hugs that I get from the people I can help.

Maria Campo

Why I Volunteer:  As a student pursuing a MPH in Community Health, I’m really passionate about health equity and advocacy.  Unfortunately, there is a lot about the vaccine sign-up process that is inequitable.  Elderly, poor and marginalized communities who have been hit the hardest by COVID-19 may lack the understanding of technology, the necessary devices, the internet connection, etc. to book appointments on their own.  Booking vaccine appointments is something that I wish I never had to get really good at, but since I did, the least I can do now is use that skillset to help those who are struggling to do it themselves.  We’re all in this together!

Fave NYC Spot:  The Flatiron District!  My undergraduate dorm was really close to it.  I loved walking there and sitting in Madison Square Park or going to Eataly!

Fave scheduling tip/trick:  The NYS sites are my favorite to book at because the website you schedule on is the easiest to refresh repeatedly.  I like to use the ctrl+R shortcut to refresh so that I can have one hand refreshing and one hand controlling my cursor to select the appointment as quickly as possible.  Pick one of the sites and stick with it rather than trying to refresh multiple sites at once to make sure you don’t miss any appointments while switching between tabs.  You can also scroll the page down slightly before you start refreshing so that each time you refresh, it refreshes to the scrolled down spot.  This gives you a split second of extra time to grab an appointment because it shortens the amount that you have to scroll when one finally does come up

 

Amanda Eisenberg

Why I volunteer: As a health care reporter, I saw the worst of the pandemic up close: overflowing hospitals, the never ending sound of sirens, the empty streets. Now that we have a vaccine, I want to help get as many people protected against the novel coronavirus as possible and get back to the city we love — together.

Fave NYC spot: Zabars

My scheduling tip: Set notifications from TurboVax (thank you, Huge Ma!) so I get instantly notified once appointments are available.<

Ariel Gelrud

Why I volunteer: As a Latino, I care deeply about reducing the racial disparities in Covid vaccination rates. Our community has been among the hardest hit, and I want to do whatever I can to help my community and all others recover from the pandemic.

Fave NYC spot: the Hudson River bike trail!!!

My scheduling tip: My tip is to always be super flexible and understanding of people’s unique needs when helping them find an appointment!
If you are interested in volunteering, email us with “volunteer” in the subject line and fill out this form. Our greatest need right now is outreach. Can you post these flyers around your neighborhood? And remember to share the link to our intake form.

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