Students Form Vaccine Initiative For Equal Access

As increasingly available vaccines offer a path toward the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, several Colgate students have formed Team Vaccine, an initiative to help the elderly and those with disabilities sign up for their COVID-19 vaccine appointments. Working with the Madison County Office of the Aging (MCOA), Rural Health Council (RHC) and the Madison County Department of Health (DOH), students will volunteer for a phone line to address questions about vaccine appointments, answer calls related to state vaccine signups and assist in utilizing the state’s signup website.

A coordinated effort between the Max Shacknai Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education (COVE), the DOH, RHC and MCOA, students will begin to be trained via Zoom this week to learn how to use the phone line to assist those eligible for the vaccine to make appointments. One of the founders of Team Vaccine, senior Ellie Schonberg, points to the complicated logistics of vaccine distribution.

“There are about 1,700 individuals on a waiting list for these vaccines provided by the county. This means that there are far fewer vaccines provided than desired, and the county is in dire need of more vaccines from the state in order to meet this need,” Schonberg said. “Although many can travel to state vaccination sites … many others cannot, and thus need county assistance to receive their vaccinations.”

Schonberg said she felt compelled to help upon hearing stories of how difficult it has been for some of those eligible for vaccination to schedule appointments.

“There were all these news stories about people who were elderly or otherwise disabled and had trouble getting vaccine appointments through New York State’s website and other states’, too. That didn’t seem fair to me,” Schonberg said. “There should be equal access for people coming from all backgrounds, and the state has a great setup, but I think there are always some holes that volunteers can fill, so I thought why not try to fill that hole and try to help out – even if it’s only a couple of community members.”

Schonberg initially reached out to Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies Meika Loe to brainstorm how Colgate students could get involved. 

“She’s a really good resource, and she’s always talked to me about her thoughts on how we treat elderly people and how we treat aging, so we’ve had some really great conversations,” Schonberg said. “She connected me with about five of her students and we just met over Zoom and I was like, ‘Okay guys, I don’t have anything in place yet, but this is what I’m thinking,’ and they were all really on board and were like, ‘let’s get it done.’ We sort of took off from there.”

One of the volunteers, Colleen Augello ’20, was frustrated by the lack of assistance given to those who need help navigating the state’s website and signing up for a vaccine appointment. Upon joining the initiative, Augello hopes the student-run hotline will help address this need.

“I was trying to get appointments for people in my family, and just going through the system, I thought, if I was having trouble, what about people who literally don’t use a computer every day?” Augello said. “So I knew that it was possible to help out even a couple of people.”

Similarly, Schonberg understands how difficult it is to make appointments in the area after hearing stories from her mother, a pediatrician in Upstate New York, who told her that grandparents of her patients were coming in to ask for help.

“I saw this and was like, there are people who just need to be walked through the process and it’s totally understandable,” Schonberg said. “It is daunting and the state website can be really overwhelming, especially if you are not well-acquainted with computers, or even if you are. It’s a lot to ask, and I think students are people who are often very well-equipped, both computer skills and people skills.”

Beyond helping people sign up for their appointments, Team Vaccine hopes to assist people in the area with getting to the appointments, too. Another founding member of the initiative, junior Jordana Kaller, spoke to the issue of coordinating rides while navigating Colgate’s Commitment to Community Health, which requests that students do not drive in vehicles together.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to drive people to get their vaccines, but since we have restrictions as students, we’re going to try to get faculty to help us with that effort,” Kaller said.

Along with creating a GroupMe to organize those hoping to get involved with Team Vaccine, some of its members have posted fliers on Instagram to spread the word about the initiative and put the word out to the student body. After gathering around 50 volunteers, Schonberg hopes to continue spreading the word so that any student who has the time can have the opportunity to help volunteer. 

“It is a work in progress for sure, but we are thinking about a lot of these things and how we can best help people access the healthcare that they have a right to,” Schonberg said. “We, I think as human beings and as citizens of the United States, have a right to healthcare and we are entitled to the basic health rights that every human deserves. I think it’s just a matter of making sure that access is equal and that’s really the thing that we are going to try to overcome here.”