On April 6, 2021, everyone over the age of 16 became eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination in New York State. However, the federal supply of vaccines to New York has been unable to keep up with the growing number of eligible residents, resulting in many Poughkeepsie residents—including vulnerable members of the population such as older adults and immunocompromised people—having difficulty in booking a vaccination appointment. In response some members of the Vassar community have created the Vassar Vaccine Hotline, which helps Poughkeepsie residents secure one of the elusive vaccination appointments.
Eleanor Carter ’22, one of the head organizers of the hotline’s volunteer team, credited her mother for the idea to start a Vassar-centered hotline. Carter said,“[My mom] kept sending me articles about other students and young people who were volunteering to help residents sign up for vaccines and asked if Vassar was doing anything like that.” When she realized that there was no such program at Vassar, Carter spoke with History professor Rebecca Edwards who is also a Dutchess County Legislator and leader of the Democratic Caucus. Prior to the hotline, Carter had done other constituent service projects with Edwards this semester through a community-engaged learning credit, and, after they sorted out the logistics of which areas to serve, how to receive requests and how to the word out to residents and potential volunteers, the Vassar vaccine hotline was formed.
Booking a vaccination appointment can be a confusing, complicated process. First, users must find their way to the COVID-19 vaccine section on the official New York State website. Then, after clicking a few links, users must fill out questions to confirm their eligibility before perusing locations near them that have appointments available. The entire process requires technological knowledge and access to the Internet. Even if one has the means and the know-how to make an appointment, actually finding an availability is an entirely different battle. Bookings are filled quickly, and some vaccination spots, including many pharmacies and local pop-up locations, aren’t even shown on the New York State website.
Edwards distributed the Vaccine Hotline phone number to every resident in her district via a robocall and robo-email, paying special attention to marginalized communities and residents over the age of 65. The hotline number is a Google Voice number, which is connected to Carter’s personal cell phone. When she gets a call, Carter notes the caller’s personal information and additional details like their access to transportation and the furthest they are prepared to travel for an appointment. Carter mentioned that she also often finds herself lending an ear to callers’ frustrations and hopes for the future. “A lot of times people also need someone to listen while they vent about how difficult it is to get the vaccine, or how excited they are to get back to normal life,” she said. After all the information is recorded in the program’s shared spreadsheet, the volunteers begin to hunt for available appointments.
Currently, around 10 students are volunteering at the hotline and scouting appointments for persons who place a call. One active volunteer is Chelsea Zak ’23, who found out about the hotline from a post of Carter’s on the Facebook group Vassar: The Virtual Version. “I was a little intimidated at first because…I know how hard it is to book appointments,” Zak admitted. But, after helping a few callers, she found that she had a knack for finding available vaccination spots. Finding an appointment, especially when it’s on behalf of another person, is an art that requires experience, strategy and patience. “We need to have all the right information,” Zak stressed. “We need the email, the [phone] number, the date of birth, what qualifies the person for a vaccine…[We] need to have it all because there are so many little hurdles.”
After she gets the caller’s information from Carter, Zak goes on several vaccine websites to see if there are appointments in their desired area. Sometimes appointments are extremely hard to find, and Zak finds herself looking for an availability for a certain caller for weeks. Other times, the stars align, and she quickly finds an appointment at the right place and right time. “It’s a lot about luck, but it’s also putting in the time,” she explained. So far, Zak’s vaccine-hunting skills have helped three hotline callers secure an appointment, and she is currently searching for appointments for others.
At the moment, the hotline only serves residents in Edwards’ district, which includes the majority of the town of Poughkeepsie. “We wanted to keep it small to make sure we could keep up with demand at first—it’s still a pretty new service,” Carter stated. “But we’re hoping to expand to Barrington Atkins’ district soon (City of Poughkeepsie) and possibly other legislators around Dutchess.” Edwards also mentioned that, this week, the hotline will begin to include Spanish-language phone calls to residents to advertise the resource.
Although the hotline has been running for less than a month, it has already gotten around 30 calls, about half of which were persons getting permission to share the number with others or asking for the steps to make an appointment themselves. “It’s a rare day where I don’t get at least one call, whether it’s someone new or someone checking in,” Carter mentioned.
One thing that gets the volunteers through the rough days of scouring the web: the success stories. “I had the sweetest woman with the best Long Island accent call in asking for an appointment, first for herself and then for someone who she is a caregiver for,” Carter remembered. “We were able to get those appointments quickly, and she has been so thankful, and passed around our information to many of her friends!”
So far, the hotline has helped six people get vaccination appointments and has directed others to vaccine resources. The team is expecting more calls as they expand their horizons, though, and welcomes any Vassar students who want to join the cause.
With mass vaccination suggesting the possibility of ending the year-long pandemic, there is a sense of urgency running through the hotline volunteers—and a feeling that they are inspiring real change. “Though I happily got the vaccine as a work-study student when my supervisor asked me to, I’ve felt a lot of guilt about receiving it when people in the community who are much older and much more at risk haven’t yet,” Carter said. “So it has been really rewarding to feel like I’m doing my part to help out, and that Vassar students are using [their] time and energy to make connections to people in the area. It can be stressful to manage because it feels like so much is on the line—and so frustrating to see how difficult and inequitable the process is for people—but that stress is so worth it, even if we just get one person a vaccine.”
As the hotline volunteers hunt for vaccination appointments for the community, Zak’s sentiment resonates with the entire team and keeps them pushing forward: “Vaccines are so important, and we need to get them in as many arms as possible.” Today, the hotline is aiming to turn that goal into a reality, starting with Poughkeepsie.