When Russ Schwartz and Katherine Quirk saw that COVID-19 vaccine appointments were going to be distributed online, they immediately thought of their own parents and the senior citizen residents of the South Florida town they call home.
"Knowing that seniors were the first group it was going to roll out to, we started to think about the challenges that they might face trying to navigate how all of the information would come through," said Quirk, a pediatric hematology and oncology nurse who is engaged to Schwartz. "We knew that maybe they used Facebook but maybe they don’t use Twitter or maybe they’re not ready to open multiple browsers to try and get an appointment, or hit redial on the phone over and over again until they get through."
Quirk and Schwartz, an elementary school principal, had the idea to start a Facebook group to share information about how to sign up for COVID-19 vaccine appointments.
One month later, their Facebook group, South Florida COVID-19 Vaccination Info, has nearly 20,000 members and has helped thousands of people get appointments for COVID-19 vaccines.
"It’s overwhelming. It’s just amazing," said Schwartz, who lives in Parkland. "I think it’s giving people a lot of hope that we can get through this."
The Facebook group has become a second, full-time job for Schwartz and Quirk, who both update the page with announcements on new vaccine openings and individually help people go online to secure appointments.
They also oversee a team of about 120 volunteers who work one-on-one with people who come to the site for help, whether for themselves or their parents or grandparents. As new vaccination sites open in the area, a volunteer is tasked with learning the details of the sign-up process for each one so they can help inform others.
"[One day] one of our volunteers was able to book close to 120 appointments," said Schwartz, noting they often receive heartwarming messages of thanks. "As tired as we are at the end of the day, that’s what keeps us going."
While Quirk's and Schwartz's Facebook group provides information on several counties in South Florida, younger Americans across the country have been scrambling to secure vaccine appointments online for their grandparents and parents ages 65 and over, the most at-risk population for COVID-19.
The couple says they have helped people form similar Facebook groups in New York and Pennsylvania and are hoping to continue to scale up their effort.
"We would love to see people helping people all across the United States getting this vaccine so we can all get back to living and we can protect those who are the most vulnerable," said Quirk, who received a COVID-19 vaccine through her job as a nurse. "It is so important to get vaccinated."
"We just want people to realize that right now the demand is so much greater than the supply and it just requires a lot of patience and kindness," she said.
Both Quirk and Schwartz said they see kindness every day in their Facebook group, noting that as soon as someone posts a question about the vaccine, dozens of strangers quickly respond to offer help and share their own experience.
The couple makes an effort to keeps politics out of the group too, making sure the content is focused on "people who want information about the vaccine, not people who want to debate the vaccine or decisions about who is getting the vaccine or not," said Schwartz.
He added, "What we’ve seen come together and come out of this group is that there are kind people all throughout the South Florida community and beyond and they’re so willing to help. I think people are anxious to get this [pandemic] behind us."
Quirk and Schwartz said they have even gained friends through the process, including a 91-year-old man whom they helped get a vaccine.
"He’s our best friend now," Schwartz said of the man, a widower. "We text him and call him and he sent two of his neighbors to us who we were able to help."