Bridging the tech gap, volunteers help seniors with COVID-19 vaccine appointments

FILE PHOTO USED FOR ILLUSTRATION PURPOSES: DeKalb County Board of Health R.N. Sheila Alexander administers a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine to Nurse Care Coordinator Yolanda Bell at the T. O. Vinson Health Center Auditorium on Winn Way in Decatur on Dec. 31, 2020. Photo by Dean Hesse.

DeKalb County, GA — DeKalb County resident Jim Tolmach tried and failed many times to book a COVID-19 vaccine online. A retiree in his 70s, Tolmach became increasingly frustrated with the process.

“I was trying to make an appointment myself and it didn’t go anywhere. I’d get online and keep looking for an opening for me and my wife. I tried Kroger, drug stores and the health department,” said Tolmach. “We felt like if we could get a vaccine, we’d get to see our families again.”

When Tolmach grew frustrated with booking the vaccine online, he turned to his daughter. As a school teacher at Mary Lin Elementary School, she didn’t have the time to help — but her room parent did.

Meet Lynley Teras, a lawyer and mom of three, known in her Candler Park neighborhood as a “Vaccine Queen.” Teras has helped about 20 seniors so far, and this week she became a moderator of a Facebook page called GA COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment Info. The name has since changed to GA Covid Vax Appt Help.

The purpose of the group is to match seniors who need appointments with volunteers who want to help. The goals is to get shots into arms, said Teras.

Teras’ parents struggled with booking a vaccine appointment online, even though she said they are “tech savvy enough.” Seniors who use cell phones and computers daily, they felt helpless and overwhelmed by the process.

To help, Teras hopped online and made appointments for her parents and in-laws, then began helping family friends. The word in her community was out.

“Once I booked our parents, I realized I had a knack for it. Then other people asked me for help. The more people that get vaccinated, the better,” said Teras.

Looking for an organized effort to channel her skills and energy, Teras found GA COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment Info and reached out to moderator Noel Schenck, a mom and realtor in Fulton County.

The fast-growing group, which focuses on metro Atlanta, plans to onboard 55 volunteers next week. Moderators are reaching out to neighborhood groups, senior centers, churches and synagogues to get in touch with as many seniors as possible.

Schenck said while volunteering this week at a large vaccine site, she noticed about 20 percent of seniors booking a second appointment did not have an email address. They probably do not have a computer or internet access either, said Schenck.

“You think seniors have someone looking out for them, but not every one does,” she said. “Some people I met left their homes for the first time since March 2020 just to get the vaccine.”

The online booking system is competitive, and exclusive to people who understand technology, Schenck said.

“Vaccination sites and health departments are trying hard, but they have limitations. The people in charge do care. There’s just an unavoidable bottleneck,” she said. “The barrier is technology.”

DeKalb County commissioners recently approved the purchase of 10 mobile health vans, which will distribute vaccines including Influenza and COVID-19 when available.

In a COVID-19 Vaccine Town Hall last week, hosted by U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, Dr. Elizabeth Ford, Health Director for DeKalb County Board of Health, said the county is adding call center so lack of computer access would not be a barrier for seniors.

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