Hopefully, the process doesn’t take too long, because Benjamin has to sleep.
He has algebra class the next day.
At 14, Benjamin could be filling his free time with sports and video games. But the high school freshman has recently been helping hundreds of people in the Chicago area get vaccinated as nationwide demand for the shots continues to far outstrip supply, leaving residents frustrated and desperate.
The project, which launched last week and was first reported by CBS Chicago, has been a colossal undertaking.
“I’m still a kid, right? I have to do my schoolwork,” Benjamin said. “And school’s obviously my number one priority, so it’s going to be a difficult balance to keep.”
That people need help registering for vaccinations stems from an underlying systemic shortcoming: The U.S. vaccine distribution process has been plagued by inefficiencies, creating shortages in some areas and surpluses in others. Federal officials have mostly left logistics to state and local health departments, whose budgets have shrunk for years. Those officials also face uncertainty about how many vaccine doses the federal government will send and when they will arrive.
“Really, this is an effort that shouldn’t have had to be taken care of by a 14-year-old,” Benjamin said. “It should have been taken care of by the federal government or a state government or a county government.”
Amid that chaotic landscape, more than 24,000 people have joined the Chicago Vaccine Hunters Facebook group, where members plead for help finding appointments and drop leads to potential openings. People requesting the time slots have shared a lot of sad stories, Benjamin said. Someone told him they had Stage 4 cancer and were afraid of dying if they caught the virus. Other people said their children were about to give birth and they wanted to be vaccinated so they could meet their grandchildren. Only about 5 percent of Chicago residents and 5 percent of suburban Cook County residents have been fully vaccinated, according to state statistics.
A spokeswoman for the Chicago health department, Erica Duncan, said vaccine supply was “very limited” and urged patience as the city works to make the shots more easily accessible. In the county, health department spokesman Don Bolger said he expected more doses to become available in the coming weeks.
The flawed nature of the vaccine rollout has not been lost on Benjamin, who faces a long wait until he’ll be eligible for a shot himself.
For now, Benjamin is the best resource that many of the people he has worked with can find.
He said he learned to navigate vaccine registration systems in January while helping his grandparents in Florida find appointments. Then a journalist who talked to his class for career day urged the students to watch a local news segment, in which Benjamin learned about the Chicago Vaccine Hunters group.
Benjamin realized that his newfound vaccine registration skills might be in demand, so he started sharing tips in the group while on winter break last week. He soon found his Facebook Messenger inbox overflowing with requests for help from people who said they were too slow or technologically unskilled to sign up themselves.
To keep up with demand, Benjamin created a Google Form that people could fill out to ask for assistance. The information flows into a spreadsheet now accessed by about 50 volunteers whom Benjamin recruited to help secure appointments.
Benjamin’s project offered a ray of hope to Lisa Lorentzen, who pleaded for help last week in a message posted in the Facebook group: “I am a 70 year old Heart Bypass patient, (1b) who lost her husband 10 months ago, during Covid, in house, and looking for a vaccine! Really want to see my family in Minneapolis.”
Lorentzen hadn’t seen most of her relatives since a careful gathering in September. She said she had nearly worn a hole in the floor of her Arlington Heights home from pacing around since her husband died — not of covid-19 — and she wanted to attend her daughter’s 50th birthday party in Arizona this spring.
But first, she needed a vaccine.
Benjamin spotted Lorentzen’s Facebook post and got her an appointment at a Walmart location. But a snowstorm caused the pharmacy to cancel, so Benjamin leaped into action again to book Lorentzen a slot at a hospital for next week.
In return, she gave him some advice. Benjamin should delegate some management responsibilities to his fellow volunteers so he could run the project while in school, Lorentzen told him.
“He’s one amazing young man,” she said in an interview. “I’m probably going to see him on a poster running for president some day, because he cares so much about people.”
After several days of making appointments, Benjamin said he has learned some tricks. He’s figured out that he can’t book slots at one major pharmacy whose platform doesn’t allow people to register others. Another pharmacy’s appointments get snagged so quickly that he can’t keep up.
The most important tip for getting a slot on the calendar, Benjamin said, is being flexible. People who are willing to drive further and get their shot at any time of day are more likely to get an appointment.
Benjamin estimates that he and his group of volunteers, known as Chicago Vaccine Angels, had helped about 370 people as of Wednesday and that he had made about 119 of those appointments himself.
The pace shows no signs of slowing down, even as Benjamin prepares to transition from virtual to in-person school next week. If anything, the workload is intensifying. Local nurses have started reaching out to him directly to alert him to extra vaccine supply, he said, and he hopes to coordinate a mass vaccination event with a local health-care system.
It’s a lot to juggle alongside homework, but Benjamin said he’s determined to plow forward. There are too many people who aren’t well-positioned to register to be vaccinated themselves.
“The problem with the equity piece is that if you don’t have four computers open and crazy-fast WiFi speed and you’re not technologically savvy … you’re going to lose the appointments,” he said.
So for now, Benjamin will be back at his computer every day just before midnight, fingers at the ready, on the hunt for the next open slot.
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