Feiner’s COVID Angels Work The System For Greenburgh’s Seniors
By Barrett Seaman–
Because they were medical professionals, friends and friends of friends would ask Dr. Roger London and his wife Loretta, residents of Tarrytown’s Wilson Park, for advice on how to get an appointment for one of the newly approved COVID-19 vaccines. They knew from their own experience that it was “practically impossible” for seniors, who have been eligible in New York State since December, to nail down an appointment. Dealing with multiple, independent sources—the state’s, hospital systems, pharmacies and urgent care facilities—as limited supplies flowed like molasses into Westchester County, was like playing whack-a-mole on web sites. Determined to figure out how to beat the system, they set up a pair of laptops, two iPads and their cell phones on the kitchen table and had at it.
They figured out that appointments opened up after midnight, as re-supplies were released, and that they disappeared as fast as they appeared. They learned to set their computers on certain sites and pounce—often in the wee hours of the morning. And they had to be prepared with all the requisite data close at hand to fill in the blanks and nail down an appointment.
It was a challenge requiring a lot more than couple with laptops and phones. Roger took the problem to Greenburgh Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, who would know how to reach the thousands of senior citizens in the ten villages and unincorporated communities in the Township. Feiner jumped on the problem, following a model he had created after December’s major snowfall, when he put out a call for volunteer “Snow Angels” to help clear the driveways and walks of senior citizens for whom the strain of shoveling was risky.
One such volunteer was Kenny Herzog, a journalist then living in Tarrytown, who in his late thirties was young and fit enough to help out. When Feiner put out a call for equally eleemosynary “COVID Angels” to help the Town’s seniors get vaccine appointments, Herzog knew his computer skills fit the profile.
By mid-March, Feiner’s Angels numbered more than 260, had made over 5,000 phone calls and secured more than 2,000 vaccine appointments. They helped set up an independent pop-up clinic at the Theodore D. Young Community Center in early March, where 750 doses were delivered into the arms of grateful Greenburgh seniors, and many will be involved in the March 20 pop-up in Sleepy Hollow.
Beside their penchant for persistency, the COVID Angels often brought new techniques and workflow solutions to the task of finding candidates and matching them with appointment openings. “We had a script I helped put together,” says Kenny Herzog, the Digital Content Director at Entrepreneur Media. They customized application forms that mirrored the state’s eligibility screen, and they developed a list of organizations that would know where and how to reach seniors.
Sharing their knowledge and experience with each other in Zoom meetings, they polished their techniques on how and when to refresh web sites, when and when not to call the state hotline. They developed relationships with individual pharmacies and occasionally discovered shortcuts that Herzog characterizes as “little hacks.” Over time, says Loretta London, “we’ve gotten better at understanding how to get it done.”
It’s hard work, being an Angel. If appointments open up after midnight, an Angel needs to be there, armed with all the personal data of his client, to fill out the right forms and lock in the appointment time. Kenny Herzog recalls sprinting—literally—from his house in Sleepy Hollow to the Open Door urgent care clinic on Broadway to nail down an opening because he couldn’t get through by phone.
They are volunteers, but the Angels get their rewards from the feedback they get from grateful seniors. The Londons recall an elderly Irvington couple who wrote them a thank you letter saying that they had survived the Holocaust only to face the prospect of death from the virus but were saved, thanks to them. Kenny Herzog admits to having a soft spot for a Polish couple he had helped. “They referred to me as ‘Kenny Angel.’”
Paul Feiner and his Greenburgh COVID Angels have gotten plenty of media attention already, with lots of web coverage and spots on both local and network television. But they are not alone—either in Westchester or nationally. Lorettta London points out the “Helping Westchester County NY Get Vaccinated” page on Facebook that has over 4,000 members, not all of them in Greenburgh. There are similar networks all across the country, some but not all of them dealing with systems as labyrinthine as New York State’s.
And there are Lone Angels too. Twelve-year-old Sam Keusch of Scarsdale, one of those computer whiz kids you read about, has been credited with scheduling some three thousand seniors on state-run vaccine sites through his “vaccinehelper.com” site. His app guides applicants through a step-by-step registration system that he then takes and works his magic. When Kenny Herzog discovered Sam, he reached out to him and his father and began trading tips. That alliance may grow as new groups of eligible recipients come in and present new and perhaps thornier problems for the appointment seekers.
Of those seniors still unvaccinated, the hardest are those who are homebound for one reason or another. Feiner’s Angels will first have to figure out how to identify them, then educate them, if necessary, and then figure out the logistics of getting someone with a needle to go to them. An ancillary problem is making sure that their caregivers are vaccinated too.
Another, even more vexing problem will be locating and persuading those who are reluctant to get vaccinated to come round. Reasons for reluctance range from linguistic, with many Spanish-speakers in the area, to religious to political, given a recent poll that found 40% of Republicans did not plan to get the vaccine. Feiner has suggested that local businesses offer discounts to customers who have been “vaxed.” Kenny Herzog believes his marketing and communications skills can be of service. Loretta London speaks at least some Spanish that can help the cause.
As the supply of the three authorized vaccines increases across the state, the initial challenge of matching people with vaccine appointments lessens, but the governor keeps opening the gates to new classes of citizens.
On Wednesday, St. Patrick’s Day, Cuomo touted the statistic that nearly a quarter of New Yorkers had received at least one dose, and then announced that most of the state-run vaccination sites will be able to schedule any eligible New Yorker, now including “public-facing government employees, not for profit workers who provide public-facing services” and “essential in-person public-facing building service workers.”
Once the Angels figure out just what that means, they will be ready to match them up with a life-saving needle.