The Rye Brook Senior Center launched a COVID Vaccine Angel program to help eligible senior citizens struggling with technology find and sign up for vaccination appointments.
File Photo
The Rye Brook Senior Center launched a COVID Vaccine Angel program to help eligible senior citizens struggling with technology find and sign up for vaccination appointments. File Photo

Since December, when the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines got the greenlight and began rolling out to a select few U.S. citizens, Pat Saline started regularly hopping on the phone.

Initially, vaccines were only offered to health care workers. But at 78 years old, the Avon Circle resident knew she would be eligible soon. However, even after her age demographic was listed as a qualified group, signing up for the shot proved to be a difficult process.

“I’ll tell you, it was like a horrible, horrible nightmare,” Saline described. “We are senior citizens. We’re not all compatible with the computer, we don’t know much about it. When we’d dial somewhere, there would always be a recording saying that either they didn’t have it or there were too many people on the list. And you couldn’t even sign up to be put on the list, they’d say you have to go on the computer to schedule an appointment online.”

Saline doesn’t own a computer. Her 90-year-old husband, Bob, has an iPhone, but neither of them are all that familiar with using it for features beyond making phone calls.

According to Rye Brook Senior Center Director Liz Rotfeld, countless seniors in the area are facing a similar conundrum. They’re the most at risk if they contract COVID-19—which is why they became an eligible population so quickly—but also struggle the most with the technology needed to navigate the elusive vaccine appointment system in place.

Inspired by the Town of Greenburgh’s COVID Angels program—which galvanized 180 volunteers to help senior citizens figure out the system and secure appointments—Rotfeld enlisted her Rye Brook friend Rebecca Oling to help launch a similar program, with a similar name, in the Village.

Though the Rye Brook COVID Vaccine Angels program only officially started on Sunday, Feb. 14—after Rotfeld attended Zoom meetings to learn from Greenburgh officials, crafted a system that would work locally and started training helpers on the process—they’ve already signed up over 50 volunteers from the community and have made appointments for over 40 seniors.

“I’ve talked many times about how amazingly the Rye Brook community has stepped up during the pandemic. They volunteered for us to deliver meals to seniors, and this is the same thing with a different group of people. It’s unbelievable how selfless people are,” Rotfeld said. “To be honest, I was expecting it to happen. Rye Brook really steps up. The way they’ve dedicated themselves throughout the whole pandemic.”

Oling has been one of those people who took it upon themselves to make a difference. When the pandemic first struck last spring, she immediately started working with Congregation KTI to ensure the elderly population was OK. Ambitious to expand the reach of her impact, she soon after launched the Rye Brook/Port Chester COVID Helpers group—inspired, she laughed, by Mr. Rogers’ age old advice to “always look for the helpers.”

Describing herself as the “matchmaker between opportunities and needs,” Oling created the group to connect people to different philanthropic ways to help people hurting from the pandemic—such as food distribution, holiday gift drives, and now, the Angels program.

“I think it’s incumbent on people who are well enough to help people who are not,” Oling said. “For me, it all started with the ethics of Congregation KTI, which has a 130-year history of being active in helping people in the community and all sorts of things.”

Using her skills as a faculty librarian at Purchase College, Oling was instrumental in helping Rotfeld organize and streamline the COVID Vaccine Angels program from an idea into a workable system. Within a few days, they developed a whole process.

Prepared with a script, volunteers first call seniors to see if they’re interested in accepting help—a task sometimes easier said than done. Before COVID-19, Rotfeld put a lot of work into training her patrons about scam callers. She essentially needed to retrain them to trust her Angels.

If a senior is interested, the volunteer will collect all the information needed from them to make an appointment. Then, the group collectively puts in countless hours every day searching the Internet—pharmacies, the New York State vaccination site and any other sources they happen to discover—for availability.

“There have been some challenges. It can be hard,” Oling said. “Some seniors will say they want a particular time or day, because that’s their preference, but this is not a system where preferences can be engaged. You have to take what you’re given; the appointments go so fast, it’s crazy. Some are unwilling to travel out of town, or they want to make an appointment with a friend and go the same day as them. It’s important for people to know, that isn’t how this works. It’s not a flexible system.”

Then, there are flaws in the actual appointment structure that volunteers are constantly learning to navigate around with new tricks. For example, Oling said they keep an ongoing list on which websites are best used with different browsers, and what information in the signup forums can be skipped without interrupting the entire process.

The appointment links and guidelines, Rotfeld said, are always changing. It’s a lot for the volunteers to stay on top of—she can’t even imagine how hard it would be for someone who can hardly use a computer.

“It’s crazy, it’s really unfair that it’s so difficult,” Rotfeld said. “But what can we do but make the best of it.”

“Appointments are sporadic. There’s no rhyme or reason to when they release appointments, and if they do, you have to get on it right away,” Oling said. The Angels are in group chats together, so when one finds available spots, they immediately alert the rest. “I joke to everybody we’ll be better settled for the next pandemic. A month ago, a process probably should have been created that all senior centers could use. But hindsight is 2020. I think New York is still doing better than a lot of other states.”

As a 14-year-old freshman at Blind Brook High School, Marissa Savner was eager to sign up to be an Angel when a recruitment notice was circulated around the building by teachers.

She realized it’s the perfect opportunity for young people to make a difference, because they have a distinct advantage in this particular arena that others don’t: growing up with technology.

“I think it’s important because a lot of these seniors’ lives have been the most impacted. And a lot of them can’t even go out and see people anyone anymore,” Savner said. “These vaccines can help get their lives back to normal. So, whatever you can do to help get them an appointment, and make sure they’re the ones who are getting the appointments, it’s really important.”

Both Oling and Rotfeld expressed desires to expand the COVID Vaccine Angels program to neighboring communities and other eligible populations once they feel comfortable about where Rye Brook seniors stand and the effectiveness of their system. Oling said during her down time, she’s already used the skills acquired in just the last few days to help her friends in the education field who are eligible for the vaccine but don’t have time to both teach and spend countless hours cruising the Internet for potential appointments.

Ideally, Rotfeld said they’d like to bring nurses into the Rye Brook Senior Center and get it established as a vaccination site. But even if that happens, it’ll still be incumbent on the state getting and distributing a larger supply of doses.

The Port Chester Senior Center, for instance, was approved as a vaccination pop-up clinic on Tuesday, Feb. 16, and will be receiving 200 doses to administer this weekend. But by the end of the day, all the shots had been called for.

Through the COVID Vaccine Angel program, Saline is slated to get vaccinated in April. Her husband will be getting his inoculation the day before.

“They were wonderful to us, very kind. I don’t know if we would have gotten these appointments without them,” she said. “There’s a weight lifted off my shoulders. It’s been a stressful year.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the COVID Angels program or who would like to request assistance can call the Rye Brook Senior Center at 914-939-7904.

“This is the amazing thing about Rye Brook residents. People jump at the opportunity to help. They want to make a difference,” Oling said. “With each appointment we make, we could be saving a life, we could be saving a family from grief. Every time an appointment is made, I can’t even describe the feeling of accomplishment. It’s such a thrill to know I’m making someone’s life better.”