Alicia Devine,/ Tallahassee Democrat
Many people have found themselves juggling two or three different jobs during the pandemic, such as working parent/homeschool teacher/caregiver for a sick neighbor or family member.
Well, one Florida education reporter hasn’t just been covering her regular K-12 beat and how the coronavirus has ravaged her city; she also became the unofficial community liaison for Tallahassee residents bewildered by the process to register for the COVID-19 vaccine. And her story illustrates just how confusing the vaccine rollout has been in some parts of the country.
CD Davidson-Hiers, 26, who’s covered public school education for the Tallahassee Democrat for the past year and a half, even went so far as to invite readers in a recent column to “call or text me” with questions about making vaccination appointments.
And boy, did they: She tells MarketWatch that she stopped counting after she fielded the first 150 or so calls, including 57 in a single day. She guesses that she’s spoken to around 200 people, including by email and over text messages. She has guided some people through the application process over the phone, or even filled out the online applications herself for people without internet access. Many calls have come from seniors without a computer to fill out an online application for a vaccination slot, for example, or from readers calling on behalf of their older parents or grandparents who aren’t tech-savvy.
“When older people are upset, you fix it.”
“I’m generalizing, but people 65 and older read the newspaper. The majority are not on social media. They’re not great at internet use,” says Davidson-Hiers. “I spoke with one 84-year-old woman … and she was crying and talking about how she just wanted to give up” on trying to get vaccinated.
“I grew up Southern,” she adds. “When older people are upset, you fix it.”
So how did an education reporter without a medical background become her community’s go-to for vaccine questions? And why aren’t these folks calling the health department?
Well, they are — but the Leon County health department was initially overwhelmed with calls after Florida became one of the first states to expand its vaccine access to anyone over age 65 on Dec. 30, 2020. The health department wasn’t immediately available for comment, but Leon County certainly wasn’t the only Florida county struggling. Local health departments were left to come up with their own systems for delivering the vaccine , often on a first-come, first-served basis. As a result, Floridians have reported waiting on hold for hours to speak with somebody, or getting automated error messages. There were also reports of Florida seniors waiting in lines outside overnight , camping out in lawn chairs and sleeping in their cars in their desperate attempts to get either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines to protect themselves from the virus that has now killed more than 407,000 Americans.
Older adults are at the highest risk of severe illness with COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , and they are also at a high risk of hospitalization or death from the coronavirus. While older Americans are toward the front of the line for vaccinations, the rules for vaccine eligibility, and how to register, vary by state, which complicates matters. And elected officials in New York and Washington, D.C. have also complained about hang-ups in making vaccination appointments, so Florida certainly isn’t alone there.
Davidson-Hiers explained that, like many journalists, her coverage has expanded over the past year to include coronavirus updates. That not only made her more familiar with the phases of the development and distribution of the vaccine candidates from Moderna /zigman2/quotes/205619834/composite MRNA +6.89% and Pfizer /zigman2/quotes/202877789/composite PFE +0.03% with BioNTech /zigman2/quotes/214419716/composite BNTX +2.28% , but her Leon County audience also grew more familiar with her . They got used to seeing her COVID-19 stories in their daily paper.
What’s more, every one of her pieces includes her work email address and phone number at the end. And Davidson-Heirs always answers her phone.
Alicia Devine,/ Tallahassee Democrat
It doesn’t even matter to most callers that she doesn’t have the answers to many of their questions, she says. Folks are just relieved to have anyone pick up the phone and listen to them.
“So many people say, ‘It’s just been so good to talk to a human,’” she says. “We’re all so isolated right now. And I think that’s the answer to the question of why I keep answering my phone.”
“So many people say, ‘It’s just been so good to talk to a human.’”
Davidson-Hiers isn’t the only journalist who has stepped up to make appointments for older readers to get shots in their arms, or to Google the number of their local health departments for them. Her editor Jim Rosica tweeted that he also made an appointment for an 87-year-old Tallahassee man and his wife who didn’t have a computer, and who called the newspaper because they “didn’t know what else to do.”
“I called everybody,” Rosica recounted the man saying. “You’re the first to call back.”
The Verge reporter Nicole Wetsman, who recently published an article describing how Florida counties are using EventBrite /zigman2/quotes/208043748/composite EB +0.44% to schedule COVID-19 vaccine appointments, tweeted that she made a vaccine appointment for her grandmother in Florida, as well. She wrote it’s worrisome that, “it’s mostly seniors with internet access/internet savvy grandkids who are journalists [who are] getting the first batch of shots.”
It’s another symptom of the disorganized vaccine rollout across the country that has seen far fewer Americans vaccinated over the past month or so than the government had initially trumpeted. As of last Friday morning, only 12.3 million doses had been administered, according to the CDC vaccine tracker — well below the 20 million that were promised by the end of December. Similar to how Florida left individual counties to develop their own plans for distributing the vaccines, there has been no centralized, national plan for getting the vaccines into people’s arms.
But President Joe Biden has made addressing the COVID-19 crisis his top priority since taking office on Wednesday.
The day before his inauguration, he pledged to distribute 100 million COVID-19 vaccine shots in his first 100 days in office, which would vaccinate 50 million Americans. He has dispatched Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, to pledge to the World Health Organization (WHO) that the U.S. will work with it again, after the previous administration had withdrawn America from the international health agency. Biden also intended to sign 10 executive orders and other directives on Thursday to expand the federal response to the pandemic, including the making, distribution and administration of vaccines. What’s more, Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -1.97% has offered to lend its logistical resources to help the new president’s effort to quickly distribute COVID-19 vaccine.
In the meantime, volunteers such as Davidson-Hiers are doing their best to fill the information gap. In the weeks since her column calling on her community to call her, the county has created a COVID vaccine outreach program — “I can’t attribute that to me at all,” she hastens to add — which has taken some of the burden off her. But she still gets 15 to 20 calls a day. And there are four or five people — who have never identified themselves — that she is texting with regularly.
“I’m not a superhero,” she says. “I do turn my phone off. I go for walks. I take breaks, and I get upset. This is a stressful time that we are all living through, and I’m not immune to that.”
“No, this is what journalists do ,” she continues, explaining that reporters know where to look for information, which questions to ask, and how to pivot when they hit a wall. “Wanting to provide information to people is something that all journalists share; that passion to help with access to information.”
“I’ve never been more proud to be a journalist,” she adds. “And I salute all of my fellows everywhere.”