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After a stranger helped her dad score a vaccine, heres how shes paying it forward – CNN

That moment marked the end of one journey and the beginning of another. Zayas had tried desperately for three weeks to get a vaccine for her dad, with no luck. Finally, she felt hopeful. And the 35-year-old small business owner wanted to pay it forward.

Now she spends her nights flipping between multiple tabs open on her iPhone screen, racing to help others register. Her focus: Spanish-speaking immigrants who are struggling to understand the system and get a spot.

“It’s just crazy,” Zayas says. “It doesn’t feel right that somebody has to be spending so much time and so much effort trying to get a vaccine. The people that I help, they don’t have the luxury to stay at home and look. … They’re even more vulnerable to the virus because they’re more exposed. They’re the ones making our food and cleaning the hospitals and things like that, and they don’t have time.”

Zayas and several other people across the country who are trying to help communities of color get vaccines told CNN there’s no magic strategy for success. They listen to people’s fears. They work the phones. And sometimes the process still feels as rare and random as playing the lottery.

Here are some of the things they’ve learned:

She’s fielding frustrated calls from people who feel they’ve been shut out

Brenda Robinson has spent her career trying to help fight health disparities. As the CEO and founder of the Black Nurses Coalition in Albany, New York, she says she’s been working in overdrive ever since the pandemic hit, heartbroken by the devastating toll she’s watched coronavirus take in her community.

But Robinson says even though she’s been steeped in these problems, she was surprised by the vaccine rollout.

“The distribution is so chaotic, so unorganized, that we find ourselves constantly trying to play catch up and trying to get our folks in those seats so they can get the vaccine,” she says.

Robinson says the people she speaks with are increasingly desperate.

“I’ve got so many people calling my phone looking for the vaccine, crying and upset. … I’m dealing with a lot of frustration,” she says. “People are saying, ‘I know that that the vaccine is here, and I can’t get it, and I know that we’re impacted the most.'”

For weeks, Robinson and other volunteers have been going door to door in underserved Albany neighborhoods to help people register for the vaccine.

If people they meet have internet access, they’re given a QR code so they can sign up on their phones. If they don’t, volunteers take down their information.

Robinson keeps a running list of names, and keeps calling every community leader she can think of to try to secure more spots.

It’s been disappointing, she says, to hear some officials point to skepticism over the vaccine in communities of color as a reason for the disproportionate numbers.

“They use that as an excuse,” she says, “when there are so many ways that access is the problem.”

As she works to register more people in her community, Brenda Robinson of the Black Nurses Coalition has also been sharing her vaccine story. She says she was skeptical at first but did the research to make sure the vaccine would be safe. Recently, she got her second shot.As she works to register more people in her community, Brenda Robinson of the Black Nurses Coalition has also been sharing her vaccine story. She says she was skeptical at first but did the research to make sure the vaccine would be safe. Recently, she got her second shot.

The solution, she says, is engaging with people in the community to hear their concerns — and then doing everything possible to help them sign up.

Robinson has driven people to vaccine appointments and helped host pop-up vaccination efforts.

She spoke with CNN the day before she planned to head to a meatpacking plant and field questions from workers worried about vaccine safety.

Her plan: to tell them about all the research she’s done to make sure the vaccine is safe — and to ask everyone in the room whether they’d lost a loved one or been touched in some way by Covid.

She knows nearly everyone will raise their hands. And she hopes she’ll be able to help all of them get vaccines, despite all the obstacles standing in the way.

She says a lack of high-speed internet puts her community at a disadvantage

As she stands in the parking lot of the community center she runs in south Dallas, Sherri Mixon looks at the long line of cars and thinks about all the layers of inequality that have been piling up in the pandemic.

Many people waiting in line are here to get food. Mixon, executive director of the T.R. Hoover Community Development Center, started a drive-thru grocery service here months ago to help the growing number of families in need in this majority Black community. But some of them are lining up for another reason, too, she says. They don’t have reliable internet service at home and haven’t been able to register to get a vaccine.
Volunteers outside the T.R. Hoover Community Development Center work to distribute food and register people for Covid vaccines in a drive-thru line.Volunteers outside the T.R. Hoover Community Development Center work to distribute food and register people for Covid vaccines in a drive-thru line.

“Here you have a community of great disparity — lack of internet or lack of technology, and sometimes both,” she says.

“It was backwards,” she says. “There should have been more of a thought process to bring ourselves to understand that internet access and technology access, these communities had none of that. That’s where the plan of action should have been addressed.”

Mixon started registering people for vaccines after one person stopped by and asked for help. From there, she says, it’s snowballed into a massive effort to register hundreds of people every week. And now, she says, they’ve gotten some city funding to help.

Sherri Mixon, executive director at the T.R. Hoover Community Development Center, has been trying to help more people in her South Dallas neighborhood sign up for vaccines.Sherri Mixon, executive director at the T.R. Hoover Community Development Center, has been trying to help more people in her South Dallas neighborhood sign up for vaccines.

“There are a lot of issues…but this registration line, this makeshift line is our first defense for this virus, getting them registered, getting them on their way to take their vaccine,” she says. “Dallas needs to become whole. And this is the only way I know of to do that.”

He sees language barriers getting in the way

Peter Ng heard a common concern from many seniors in his Los Angeles community who were struggling to sign up for vaccines.

Information about how to do so, he says, was only available in English and Spanish. That left out many immigrants living in Chinatown who speak other languages.

“They were very anxious,” says Ng, CEO of the Chinatown Service Center. “In an hour or two, all the appointments were gone.”

The center started compiling a waiting list. It wasn’t long before it had thousands of names.

Volunteers from the Chinatown Service Center in Los Angeles register seniors for Covid vaccines in February.Volunteers from the Chinatown Service Center in Los Angeles register seniors for Covid vaccines in February.

At first it was hard for the center, which also operates a community health clinic, to get enough vaccines to help everyone who wanted one.

And Ng fears the facility’s name may have had something to do with it, given rising anti-Asian sentiments.

“We’ve been here for a long, long time. We are just as American as anybody else,” he says. “We should not be…neglected, just because we bear the name Chinese or look Chinese.”

Recently the situation has been improving, Ng says. Volunteers for the center have been doing everything they can to get more people signed up. And officials have been providing a growing number of vaccine doses. So now, Ng says, patience is key.

“We have to just continue to be cautious, to protect ourselves, and time will take care of things,” he says.

She learned strategies from Facebook groups and scours for spots every night

Late at night, Vivi Zayas sits in bed, holding her phone — and her husband’s too. He sits beside her, watching a basketball game. She’s involved in a different kind of competition: trying to register people for vaccines.

Sometimes, she shouts out when she’s successful.

“Did you just score?” her husband asks.

Weeks ago, Zayas made it her mission to learn all she could about the vaccine registration process. She joined Facebook groups to get tips, like what times of day different pharmacies post appointments online and how to fill out forms in advance so you’re ready to register the second spots are available.

“I started researching, and then I was able to score one for my mom. … Then my mom goes, ‘Oh, can you find for my friend from church?’ That’s how things escalated,” Zayas says.

Now her phone is full of texts in Spanish from others in the Philadelphia area, asking for help.

Since then, Zayas estimates she’s secured dozens of appointments — many for people she’s never met — and spends several hours every night trying. Sometimes, even with the tricks she knows, she can’t find any.

“It’s like playing the lottery. … It’s very unfair,” Zayas says. “It’s hard enough for everybody, and it’s even harder for the Hispanic community, for immigrants and for people where English is not their first language.”

Vivi Zayas says she searches for vaccine appointments at night, and for about an hour in the morning when her daughters Lulu and Ruby are having breakfast. She wants them to see what's she's doing and learn. "I just hope they will grow up and be compassionate," she says.Vivi Zayas says she searches for vaccine appointments at night, and for about an hour in the morning when her daughters Lulu and Ruby are having breakfast. She wants them to see what's she's doing and learn. "I just hope they will grow up and be compassionate," she says.

Making vaccine appointments isn’t Zayas’ day job. She runs a play café in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, that hosts parties and storytime events for kids. But she thinks her experience running a business has helped her tackle this challenge.

“You have to be tough. You have to kind of go with the flow and really push and research and learn,” she says. “If you don’t know how to do something, then you find out and you get the problem solved.”

This is a problem Zayas hopes she won’t have to solve for much longer. But as long as people in her community need help getting vaccines, she’s determined to keep looking.

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