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Shot chasers: How volunteers are helping bridge America’s vaccine gap

As the U.S. continues to grapple with the pandemic, vaccine supply remains limited in some areas. Distribution systems are fragmented and tough to navigate, especially for the estimated 25 million Americans who don’t have internet access for online registration. Luckily, these volunteers are trying to fill that gap by helping strangers nab slots to get their shots. John Yang reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, President Biden pledged to meet a higher public vaccination goal today.

    Right now, more than one in five Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. But in many areas of the country, people who are eligible are still struggling to get vaccinated.

    John Yang reports on some volunteers who are stepping in to help.

  • Mansi Shah:

    My name is Mansi, and I'm a volunteer.

    Does Harriet still need help in securing an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine?

  • Man:

    Yes, desperately. She's 93 years old.

  • John Yang:

    For weeks now, Mansi Shah has been helping strangers nab slots to get their shots.

  • Mansi Shah:

    Are you guys taking appointments for seniors above the age of 65?

  • Woman:

    No, we're booked. We're totally booked.

  • John Yang:

    Shah works full time, but she makes calls and scours the Web early in the morning and late at night, when spots are made available.

  • Mansi Shah:

    If I'm not working, if I'm not sleeping, I'm doing this.

  • John Yang:

    Vaccine supply remains limited in some areas. Distribution systems are fragmented and tough to navigate. And some 25 million Americans don't have Internet access for online registration.

    That's where Shah comes in.

  • Mansi Shah:

    As soon as I find something, I will be calling you.

  • John Yang:

    She started by helping her parents.

  • Mansi Shah:

    My mom doesn't speak English, and my dad's not the most tech-savvy, so I just felt really bad about how inequitable the reach was.

  • John Yang:

    Now she's helping folks she's never met, like Sandy Cosentino, who put pen to paper to describe her circumstances.

  • Sandy Cosentino:

    "I am homebound for the greater part of my day, always cautious. I stay on the side of caution because I have two underlying conditions."

  • John Yang:

    But she couldn't find an appointment until W Girls, a nonprofit, connected her with Shah.

  • Sandy Cosentino:

    Mansi said to me: "Don't worry, Sandy. I'm going to help you."

    I call her my guardian angel.

  • John Yang:

    The 73-year-old recently got her first dose of the Moderna vaccine.

  • Sandy Cosentino:

    I'm going to wait until I can, and I'm going to call my grandson Michael, and I'm going to tell him his meemaw is coming to give him the biggest hug.

  • John Yang:

    Cosentino is one of hundreds of people whom Shah has signed up.

  • Mansi Shah:

    It's their stories that I connected to initially. I mean, that's literally what keeps me up at night and wakes me up in the morning in time for these appointment slots going up.

  • John Yang:

    I mean, it takes a special person to try to help them. I mean, where do you think that comes from?

  • Mansi Shah:

    So, I think it comes from my best friend, who she passed away because of COVID. Her funeral was online. I got married in the summer. That was over Zoom. My husband's parents weren't there. Nobody from his side was there.

    And I just was lost in darkness. And I think this is the light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Michaelene Carlton:

    COVID has taken quite a bit from myself and my family. This is a way that I can help others.

  • John Yang:

    Michaelene Carlton estimates she's made over 50 appointments for people. But she says she gets something out of it, too.

  • Michaelene Carlton:

    I'm actually home on disability right now. I'm out of work still due to COVID complications. You know, I have a lot of free time. And so, when they couldn't find any vaccines, it kind of gave me purpose.

  • John Yang:

    The mother of two is a so-called COVID long-hauler. Her symptoms have lasted almost a year.

  • Michaelene Carlton:

    I have daily headaches, heart palpitations, and I have shortness of breath.

  • John Yang:

    Does that give you an added mission here, that you really want to help people get vaccinated to avoid what you went through?

  • Michaelene Carlton:

    I don't want anyone to have to go through what I go through. I struggle every day. Some days, my headaches are so bad that I can't look at a computer screen or even a phone, where it's just too much for me.

    But the days that I can, and I can help other people, it makes me feel unbelievably happy to offer this to somebody.

  • Elisabeth Decker:

    Getting an appointment is like winning the lottery. The feeling you get when you get that appointment is just one that is unmatched.

  • John Yang:

    Fifteen-year-old Elisabeth Decker is part of a group of ninth graders who've secured more than 600 appointments for New Jersey residents.

    Alexa Walters, who's 14, started the effort.

  • Alexa Walters:

    We look on Facebook groups, Twitter drops. Literally anywhere that offers advice, we probably have looked there.

  • John Yang:

    The girls use social media to search for drops, times when appointments become available on Web sites, and then sprint to sign up.

  • Elisabeth Decker:

    It just — it takes time. They do go out quickly. It's frustrating, but it's so rewarding in the end.

  • John Yang:

    The teens even got a slot for their township's deputy mayor, Victor Sordillo. He'd been trying for 10 weeks.

  • Victor Sordillo:

    It reminded me of when I was younger and I used to try to get — be the 12th caller on a radio show to win free tickets.

    You have to call and call and call, and most of the time, they hang up on you or you get a message that says, there are no vaccines available at this time. And then I heard about this group.

  • John Yang:

    How long after that did they get an appointment for you?

  • Victor Sordillo:

    Well, let me tell you, I — she asked me when I was available. I told her that I was available Monday or Tuesday. I was getting my shot Tuesday. It was amazing.

    And I just don't know how they did it.

  • John Yang:

    Walters and her friends wish the process was easier for people.

  • Alexa Walters:

    They should not be dropping appointments at 4:00 in the morning or at midnight. Why should elderly people or people with preexisting conditions have to stay up until then, and really have to fight other people in the same boat?

  • Elisabeth Decker:

    It's a fight to get a vaccine, and that's not how it should be.

  • John Yang:

    Since not everyone the technical skills needed for the complicated sign-up process…

  • Woman:

    Your appointment is at 1:00.

  • John Yang:

    … volunteers are offering help face-to-face.

  • Mark Meeks:

    We're the computer interface for a lot of folks that don't have access, can't navigate their way to make an appointment.

  • John Yang:

    Mark Meeks is pastor of the City Church of Sacramento. He's teamed up with U.C.-Davis Health to get people vaccinated in his neighborhood of Oak Park.

  • Mark Meeks:

    We are going person to person: Do you want to be vaccinated? Ladies and men that are on the on the margins of society, that folks aren't advocating for them, that's our target.

  • John Yang:

    Meeks' church hosts a weekly vaccination clinic.

  • Mark Meeks:

    Having the vaccination site in our community makes it not only more convenient, but more accessible to those in the community.

  • John Yang:

    Since the first clinic a few weeks ago, more than 300 people have been vaccinated, like Cynthia McKinney (ph).

  • Cynthia McKinney:

    They said, come on in on Friday, and I was happy. Oh, my lord. To be able to spend time with our family members will be so good for me.

  • John Yang:

    Meeks hopes to ramp up the effort every week to meet the need.

  • Mark Meeks:

    People feel overwhelmed with the task, and they don't know where to go. I'm humbled to be in a position to effect change. And, as I keep telling our faith community, we don't know where this is headed. Only God knows. But we just have to be faithful to the task.

  • John Yang:

    Whether on the ground or on the Web.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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