BRIGANTINE — When eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine was extended to senior citizens in New Jersey, Mayor Vince Sera began receiving phone call after phone call from elderly residents looking for help navigating the multilayered, web-based appointment scheduling system.
“I think it’s very well-intentioned, and the system is supposed to be smooth and streamlined, but I think a lot of our seniors find it challenging, which is why you need people in the community to help,” Sera said.
And help they did.
Brigantine, which developed its own system to connect with those in need of a COVID-19 vaccine, gets them registered and schedules appointments for them. The town’s effort is one of the many examples of community members and local organizations that have stepped up to help the most vulnerable populations have access to the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Even though they qualify, even though they’re the right people to get shots, it’s not so easy,” Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler said. “Everyone’s trying to pitch in on the fight and address this issue.”
New Jersey, which has a goal to vaccinate 70% of the population by the summer, has to date vaccinated 1.5 million people, or 20.8% of the population over 18, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those between the ages of 65-79 have received 31% of the state’s vaccines, while those 80 and older, 11%.
Roughly half of the vaccines distributed have gone to those ages 30-64.
Short supplies and high demand in the densely populated state have led to a bottleneck at the websites to sign up for vaccine appointments.
But for the most vulnerable population — senior citizens — the web-based appointment system comes with its own challenges.
“A lot of people unfortunately are not connected or, for one reason or another, they don’t have a smart phone or a laptop, and it is a big issue,” said David Vinokurov, customer outreach specialist with South Jersey Gas. “So we’ve tried to connect with partner organizations that may have access to the internet to be able to sign them up.”
Vinokurov said he also finds many people who are unclear on the exact processes to go through to get signed up.
While the state website directs users to register for the New Jersey Vaccine Scheduling System, some vaccine distribution sites such as the Atlantic City mega site, have their own registration system separate from the state’s.
Once registered with the NJVSS, users will receive an email when it is time for them to schedule an appointment at a site that uses the New Jersey-run system.
But eligible residents do not need to wait for that email to make an appointment at an independently run site like the mega site at the Atlantic City Convention Center, CVS, Rite Aid or Shoprite.
Several area shore towns with high concentrations of residents aged 65 and older, including Brigantine, Sea Isle City and Ocean City, have set up services to help individuals register for the vaccine online.
On Saturday, Sera, Deputy Mayor Karen Bew, members of City Council and more than a dozen volunteers helped more than 100 seniors on the island register for the vaccine and helped 50 create a vaccine appointment. This was the second weekend the group has held an open clinic.
Sera and his team have worked with the city’s different community organizations including the Lions Club, Elks Club and veterans groups to connect with those in need and are utilizing teachers and firefighters to assist.
“There’s such a strong network of volunteers on the island who are ready to mobilize and help at any moment,” Sera said, adding that the community spirit felt similar to the town’s Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts.
The clinic will take place again from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday.
Jewish Family Services of Atlantic and Cape May Counties has also been working with its vulnerable populations, including Holocaust survivors, to secure appointments. Andrea Steinberg, a licensed clinical social worker and JFS’ CEO, said that there are no specific appointments set aside for their clients, so the staff is using the same methods for booking appointments as the general public.
“Our goal is to assist the 8,000 community members who utilize JFS services annually and need our support through this process,” Steinberg said, adding they are currently recruiting volunteers.
To volunteer with JFS for its vaccine effort, contact Vanessa Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 609-822-1108, ext. 249.
For his part, Atlantic County Sheriff’s Office Chief Warrant Officer Tim Reed has spent many hours, and some Saturday mornings, on the Atlantic City mega site website trying to get appointments for residents in need.
Reed posts how-to’s and public service announcements on the sheriff’s social media pages and fields phone calls from residents every day looking for assistance.
Scheffler said his office is mobilizing all of its partners — public and private entities, to churches, nonprofits, hospitals, treatment centers and colleges — to help get people vaccinated. Helping just felt like the right thing to do.
“It’s been our motto, since we’ve been here, to help people who are desperate and need help,” Scheffler said. “Getting online through the portal is not as simple or as easy as it appears, especially for people who may be challenged electronically.”
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