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.”
Here are some of the things they’ve learned:
She’s fielding frustrated calls from people who feel they’ve been shut out
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
The center started compiling a waiting list. It wasn’t long before it had thousands of names.
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.
“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.”
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.