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Among the unsung heroes of the pandemic is an army of volunteers who are helping New Jersey seniors get appointments for a COVID-19 vaccine. NorthJersey.com

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It began by getting COVID-19 vaccine appointments for parents and grandparents. 

Then came aunts and uncles. Soon it branched out to distant family, friends of friends and even strangers. 

Such is the life of Dee Kalman and Brian Cook, who, like hundreds of other New Jerseyans, have spent weeks booking vaccine appointments for senior citizens hindered by a system that relies almost exclusively on cumbersome online portals. 

"Getting a vaccine in New Jersey is all about technology," Cook said. "But the people who need it the most are the least educated in technology. It is a very frustrating system."

An army of volunteers have quietly become the unsung heroes of New Jersey's pandemic response by providing a much-needed service: helping those most vulnerable to the virus get access to the vaccine.

They spend hours each day often late into the night on multiple websites, searching for the latest appointments to appear. And then they frantically fill out forms to book a coveted shot.

While demand has far outpaced supply in New Jersey and across the globe, Gov. Phil Murphy's early vaccine rollout put the elderly at a major disadvantage.

In mid-January, Murphy made more than 4 million New Jerseyans eligible in one day, including those 65 years and over, those with underlying medical conditions and smokers.

It caused such an enormous rush on such a scarce product that many vaccine providers shut down appointments immediately.

Senior citizens, who make up 80% of New Jersey's 23,500 COVID-19 deaths, were forced to compete with younger, more tech-savvy people to book appointments almost exclusively through online portals.

A call center was established more than a week after seniors were made eligible. But it was discontinued for a month because operators were making too many mistakes, such as double-booking. Officials say operators have been retrained and the call center will be contacting those who are 75 and older to make appointments.

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Much of that work is already being done by volunteers who started a popular Facebook page called "New Jersey COVID Vaccine Info" to help New Jerseyans — and especially seniors — navigate the online portals and find appointments. It has grown exponentially to more than 110,000 members from 27,000 in mid-February. 

Dozens of posts each day range from those offering their services to news about which vaccine provider just offered a new slate of appointments.

Progress has come slowly. Murphy appears to be targeting seniors in the early rollout of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. As of Tuesday, 42% of all vaccine doses have gone to senior citizens, up from 37% in mid-February.

How two teachers mastered the system

Kalman and Cook are naturals for this work. They are both STEM teachers at Bergen County middle schools who teach computer science. Together, they have booked appointments for more than 200 people.

"I'm in front of a computer every day, so I was able to understand the system pretty quickly," said Kalman, who teaches at Hackensack Middle School.

They were faced with a system where appointments pop up at all times of the day on more than a dozen websites and are often booked within minutes. 

Here is what Kalman and Cook do to get an advantage.

First they gather up all the pertinent information from those seeking appointments: names, addresses, birthdates, phone numbers and, in some cases, underlying conditions. They add them to a spreadsheet to keep track of where everyone is on the road to vaccination.

They then take that information and type it into autofill on the Google Chrome web browser. That allows all the relevant information to be put in the right slots on website appointment forms with just a click of the mouse when time matters most. 

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Kalman follows some Twitter handles that post alerts when new vaccines become available. She is notified on her Apple Watch the moment the tweet appears.

It's a round-the-clock operation. Rite Aid posts appointments around 11:45 p.m. The Meadowlands mega-site does the same around midnight. And CVS posts between 4 and 6 a.m. 

And if Kalman isn't grading, preparing lessons or spending time with her family, including a 1-year-old child, she pounces. "I'm averaging about four to five hours of sleep," she said.

Most of the folks Kalman helps are in Bergen County, where she works and lives, and in Monmouth County, where she was raised. She has had the most success with the Hackensack Meridian sites and St. Joseph's University Medical Center in Paterson.  

"I wasn't working in an emergency room or in the grocery stores last spring," Kalman said. "So I feel this is my way of contributing to something good during the pandemic."

Cook, who teaches at Tenafly Middle School, uses a web extension that automatically refreshes vaccine provider webpages to see when they are updated. His biggest score came when he booked 20 appointments through CVS in one day. 

Cook has received requests and made appointments for people in New York, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Florida. 

"Word travels fast," he said last week, laughing. "The best thing is the gratification you see from people who otherwise wouldn't be able to get a vaccine."

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Since Murphy made teachers eligible for the vaccine last week, Kalman and Cook's requests have increased. They currently have 50 people in their spreadsheet.

Folks who have already gotten shots often call Kalman and Cook, offering to send them thank-you gifts.

"I keep telling them I really don't need an Edible Arrangement," Kalman said, laughing. "It's cute and unexpected. It's sort of turned into a friendship, built on a caring community."

Going above and beyond

Among those frustrated with the rollout was Lydia Sohn, an engineering professor at UC-Berkeley, who tried in vain with her sister to book appointments via the call center and online portals for her elderly parents, who live in Morris County. 

Through a series of friends and acquaintances, Sohn contacted Kalman, who was able to book appointments for her parents at the state's vaccine mega-site at the Meadowlands.

But when her parents arrived, they were so intimidated by the number of people and long lines that they phoned their daughter and told her they were going to go home.

Kalman was contacted, jumped in her car and drove to the site. There, she was able to find Sohn's parents and guide them all the way through the process. Sohn's mother got a shot that day and Kalman met the couple again the next week when it was the father's turn.

"Like, who does that, and especially when you don’t know each other?" Sohn said.

To thank her, Sohn appeared via Zoom at Kalman's middle school to discuss her pioneering work in bioengineering. 

"Dee is simply amazing," Sohn said. "She honestly went above the call of duty to help my parents. My family and I cannot express how deeply appreciative we are, and my 12-year-old twins have learned a lot about the kindness of people."

Scott Fallon covers the environment for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about how New Jersey’s environment affects your health and well-being,  please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: fallon@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @newsfallon 

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