Sharifah Taylor had all but given up on getting a COVID-19 vaccine. She had a frustrating time trying to book an appointment online, repeatedly confronted with a blank white screen instead of a confirmation. But that changed when her home phone rang on a February afternoon: The 43-year-old reluctantly picked up, half expecting a robocall, but instead heard a sunny voice on the other end of the line offering to help schedule a vaccine appointment. Taylor, who lives in Bed-Stuy and works as a bus monitor at a Park Slope private school, jumped. A week later, the stranger called back and within the hour had booked three April appointments at Medgar Evers College for Taylor, her 71-year-old diabetic mother, and her 72-year-old father. “She answered all of my questions. She even told me about her experience getting the first dose, and it made me feel more comfortable to go ahead and do it — even a bit excited,” said Taylor, who had been a bit nervous about getting the shot. “I really don’t know what we would’ve done without it. That call changed everything.”
Taylor is one of thousands of New Yorkers who in recent months have received similar calls from strangers eager to use their spare time and tech skills to help others navigate the often maddening process of booking a shot. Taylor’s vaccine appointment was the product of an elaborate system developed by Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid — one of several mutual-aid groups across the city that have mobilized their networks to help neighbors get the coveted jab.
“Wrapped up in these appointments are so many bigger issues of access to information, language, mobility,” said Ani Simon-Kennedy, the organizer with Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid who guided Taylor and her family through the sign-up process. “So, it’s beyond just booking appointments. It’s let’s meet people’s needs in a holistic way, whether that’s pure information or physically transporting them to a site.”
To do that, mutual-aid groups have launched new hotlines, layered traffic poles with flyers in various languages, and developed call outreach systems to contact their neighbors. Some mutual aids have set up physical booths, where volunteers armed with laptops are ready to help with sign-ups. Others have coordinated pop-up vaccine drives, like the one organized in early March at NYCHA’s Ingersoll Houses in Fort Greene that helped inoculate 153 seniors. Tenant associations and senior centers have been important partners, but the bulk of the work is done by a small army of dedicated mutual-aid volunteers making hundreds of calls to New Yorkers at all hours. They call and call and call until they get a voice on the phone that they can offer vaccine support to; they schedule appointments, set up transit, and check in with people after they’ve had their shots. It’s exhausting, exhaustive work that’s aimed at making the city safer by strengthening the fabric of herd immunity with each and every new vaccination.
Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid began its vaccine efforts in February, when the mass vaccination site opened at Medgar Evers College in nearby Crown Heights. At first, the state-FEMA-run site only served a handful of undervaccinated Brooklyn zip codes. Among the initially eligible were those living at NYCHA’s Atlantic Terminal complex, where the mutual-aid group was already working with the tenant association to deliver groceries to residents. So they got to work reaching out to those same people with offers to book appointments.
Half the battle is getting would-be vaccine recipients on the phone. If a volunteer is assigned 15 people to call, it’s not uncommon for them to leave 15 voicemails, says Simon-Kennedy, a filmmaker who is one of a handful of volunteers leading the group’s vaccine efforts. Even when people do pick up, they might be on the fence about getting the jab. That’s when mutual-aid workers turn into ad hoc public-health officials, sharing info about possible side effects or talking through their own experiences with the vaccine before they might actually get the go-ahead to start scrolling through a roster of websites looking for an appointment. The goal of every call is to arm people with information and access. And that’s not always vaccine-appointment related. One volunteer helped a senior who actually had to cancel her appointment after she tested positive for COVID-19; the mutual-aid network delivered her groceries, a thermometer, and a pulse oximeter, and has continued to check in on her.
Clinton Hill Fort Greene Mutual Aid has since expanded their efforts to focus on multiple NYCHA complexes and neighborhoods. As of March 21, they’ve made 3,295 calls, connected with 1,816 people, and booked appointments for 315 neighbors (229 at a pair of weekend pop-up sites the group hosted), most of whom are low-income seniors.
“We’re very much building the plane as we fly it,” says Simon-Kennedy. The assembling of said plane has, in part, come from actively trading processes and other solutions with similar groups operating in different neighborhoods, learning as they go. On a recent Zoom call with eight mutual-aid groups, from Red Hook to Astoria, one shared tips for the tricky Walgreens sign-up process, another offered translated flyers. “All of this information is so piecemeal, and having a way to sort of centralize our efforts and brainstorm particularly thorny issues or complicated situations just means that more people have a shot at appointments,” said Simon-Kennedy. “We all had the pieces — once the opportunity was there, things just mushroomed.”
One of the groups on that call was North Brooklyn Mutual Aid, which launched a new initiative called NBK Vax in January solely devoted to vaccine support. The group began helping people in earnest by late February, and has since booked more than 75 appointments. Eighty volunteers have officially “on boarded” with training calls into one of three categories: appointment assistance, community outreach, and transportation. “We want this to be full circle and help as many people as we can,” said Samantha Reichstein, the group’s founder. “If we’re going to help in some way, we want to be there for people to see them the whole way through.”
Further south, Bed-Stuy Strong has taken yet another approach. Members of the group had been mulling ways to help locals sign up for shots in February when a nonprofit asked for help scheduling vaccine appointments at Canarsie High School. Quickly, volunteers sourced names from their grocery lists, social media, and by word of mouth. A few short weeks later, 50 volunteers have made more than 1,000 calls and have scheduled 253 vaccine appointments — and counting. The mutual aid has also maintained a presence at Canarsie High School, with volunteers sometimes dropping by, holding up homemade “BED-STUY STRONG” signs to help folks with any last-minute troubleshooting.
The community itself was the biggest asset to making this depth of outreach possible, says Charlotte Sagan, a volunteer with Bed-Stuy Strong. “When we initially put out this call for people who wanted a vaccine, we said, ‘Text back this number if you’d like a vaccine,’ but then we pivoted slightly to say, ‘Text this number if you know somebody who would like a vaccine.’ That really notched up our numbers, with these mini-chains of a neighbor who’s texting on behalf of another neighbor who is texting on behalf of their father, their brother, their sister,” she said. “That really reinforced the community aspect of this. It’s just people looking out for each other.”
Linda Wilson was one of those people who got an appointment through Bed-Stuy Strong after a neighbor from across her building passed along her contact information. She had initially given up on getting the vaccine after several fruitless calls to city and state hotlines for sign-up help. “This is a community, not a neighborhood, and we all take care of each other,” said Wilson, a 70-year-old retired teacher with an array of preexisting conditions. She got her first shot at Canarsie High School on February 22, and her second on March 19. In addition to scheduling the appointments, Bed-Stuy Strong also helped her book a cab to get her to and from the vaccination site. Those shots, she said, will eventually get her back to crooning in jazz clubs with the locals she performed with before the pandemic. “The community knows who needs help and how to latch on to each other. All this is the perfect example of that,” said Wilson. “We all just want our community to be healthy.”