LONG ISLAND, NY — For days, Erica Jackson, who lives in Shirley, was like thousands of others on Long Island, trying desperately to get her father a vaccination appointment, only to be met with dead ends and escalating frustration.
Until she happened upon the “Covid Vaccine Help — New York” Facebook page, and met a team of grassroots volunteers who are working tirelessly around the clock to secure appointments for the many who come to them, literally begging for help.
“I am so very grateful to this group,” Jackson said. “I had been trying daily to book my dad and a friend of our family an appointment with no luck. They worked their magic and got them both appointments. It is wonderful, what they are doing.”
Jane Duncan, who lives in the West Village in New York City, is one of the team of volunteers who have dedicated hours and days to helping others get appointments. A dog walker who lost her job due to the pandemic, Duncan has found a new calling in helping others.
“It all started with me booking my dad’s vaccine and realizing my dad couldn’t do it for himself. I started to think about the seniors who didn’t have someone to advocate for them,” she said.
At first, Duncan posted about her willingness to help seniors, or the disabled, telling people to inbox her and she’d help them with an appointment.
“Suddenly, it turned into something bigger,” she said. “Each story was sadder than the next.”
Duncan has spoken with 9/11 survivors, first responders now dealing with 9/11 related cancers.
One person had a leg amputated. Another had double lung cancer.
And like the thousands that flock to Lourdes every year hoping for a miracle, hundreds started reaching out to Duncan and the others in the 10-person core group of volunteers who banded together to help score elusive appointments.
Duncan does all of her volunteer work on her phone, not even using a laptop.
“I can’t even see my own messages from friends on Facebook,” she said. “I’m swamped with people reaching out to me for help. And I’m trying to help them.”
Three days ago, Duncan spent six hours on phone with the New York State vaccine hotline and “booked 27 people in one shot,” she said. “I had to use the bathroom, and I was hungry, but you never know when you will get a representative to stay on the phone that long.” As she stayed on the line, other volunteers were texting her names and information of other people to book for vaccinations.
For Duncan, the hours on the phone come easily. “I love talking to strangers,” she said. On the state hotline, she said, she asked about their dogs, their lives. “Whatever I could; whatever would keep them on the phone,” she said.
Since it kicked off in early February, the Facebook group has grown to 4,000 people, with more than 700 on a waiting list. Those who’ve joined the page are pooling their talents to help, creating Google docs and spreadsheets to organize the many who’ve come forward and asked for guidance.
The volunteers prioritize the elderly and the sick, she said.
As the group organizes, Duncan would like to see it branch out into sub-groups, with volunteers possibly each helping only one or two people find appointments, paying it forward, one time slot at a time.
So far, Duncan has had days when she’s been able to make 25 to 30 appointments.
Even professionals have asked for help, Duncan said. “I had one man say, ‘I’m a doctor with 457 people who want to get vaccinated. Can you help?’ I said ‘absolutely. I’ll try my best.’ And I started plugging away,” she said.
Another man, the head of a bank, reached out, she said.
There were times when Duncan spent literally four to six hours on the phone, making appointment after appointment.
However, the state rules have now changed, with individuals no longer able to book for other people. So Duncan is unsure of how the volunteers will continue.
But they vow not to give up trying.
“I know it’s going to open up and I know in a few months we will get enough vaccines for everyone. But if I can give someone a month of their life back, that’s huge. And if I can give people hope and humanity, that’s everything,” Duncan said.
The human connection forged is invaluable, Duncan said. “I have people say they love me,” she said. One woman sent homemade masks to another volunteer who got her an appointment.
“How beautiful is that? She protected them with a vaccine appointment and they want to protect her with masks,” she said. “One hand washes the other.”
Duncan, who volunteered after 9/11 and has had emphysema and cancer, has been vaccinated.
But she, like so many others, has seen her world change with the pandemic.
“After 9/11 everyone was crying and hugging and coming together. Now, we’re all traumatized. We’re literally afraid we are going to die. We need love and support. We need hugs more than ever.”
Duncan has not been able to hug her father, who lives in her building, for more than a year. “It breaks my heart,” she said. “This pandemic has traumatized our society more than we will ever know.”
When her son, just 15, kisses a girl one day, “he’s going to be thinking of Covid the whole time,” Duncan said. “Even when we are all vaccinated, it’s still going to be on our minds.”
It’s the little things she misses, Duncan said, the little things that make a life. “What I miss more than anything is the acquaintances. I have such an amazing network of friends and family. I miss the cashiers. The doormen. The dog walkers. Those little interactions brightened my days, and they’re gone. I’m grieving for those things.”
When she went to be vaccinated, even socially distant, Duncan said: “I felt like I was going to a concert. I haven’t been around so many people in so long. We are all so starved for attention.”
And now, Duncan is reaching out to help others, by making appointments that literally change lives. “People are begging me,” she said.
Her love of helping others was born with her mother, Erica Duncan, who lives on Long Island and started the HerStory program, helping women in jail write their memoirs.
When asked what the secret is, to the many appointments she’s made, Duncan said: “It’s not like I’m a magical unicorn wizard ninja. I spend between one and six hours trying to book a single appointment. I have patience.”