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Crushing COVID-19: Harford volunteers helping others schedule hard-to-get vaccination appointments

Mary Boblits, of Bel Air, started a Facebook group called Harford Citizens Crush Covid-19 in early February, which has recently started recruiting volunteers to help others schedule an appointment to receive the vaccine.
Mary Boblits, of Bel Air, started a Facebook group called Harford Citizens Crush Covid-19 in early February, which has recently started recruiting volunteers to help others schedule an appointment to receive the vaccine. (PHOTO COURTESY OF Breanna Kuhlmann/BKLP)

Most days are long for Mary Boblits. Though she has been working from home, saving her the drive to and from Aberdeen Proving Grounds, her 9-to-5 is not the only thing occupying her time. In the mornings, evenings and sometimes during lunch breaks, she takes on another kind of job, armed with an iPhone and an iPad — helping others in Harford County get the coveted coronavirus vaccine.

Boblits, of Bel Air, started a Facebook group called Harford Citizens Crush Covid-19 in early February that served as a space for vaccine-seekers in Harford County to celebrate or commiserate with others who are trying to get the shot and share tips for how to secure an appointment. But more recently, the group has taken a more direct approach: helping others schedule an appointment to receive the vaccine.

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After about a week of doing so, a handful of volunteers had scheduled 48 appointments for Maryland residents, Boblits said. That might not sound like much, but each appointment represents over an hour of work plugging information into differing registration forms and calling around for open vaccination appointments, she said.

Mary Boblits, of Bel Air, started a Facebook group called Harford Citizens Crush Covid-19 in early February, which has recently started recruiting volunteers to help others schedule an appointment to receive the vaccine.
Mary Boblits, of Bel Air, started a Facebook group called Harford Citizens Crush Covid-19 in early February, which has recently started recruiting volunteers to help others schedule an appointment to receive the vaccine. (PHOTO COURTESY OF Breanna Kuhlmann/BKLP)

Managing the effort has been hectic, Boblits said; though she does not make the appointments herself, she coordinates the volunteers and vaccine-seekers from an iPhone, schedules posts, responds to messages and moderates posts to the page. But as the group grows, so too must its volunteer pool, she said, to avoid getting overwhelmed and increase the pace. Anyone interested in volunteering can sign up on the page.

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“They can be a really big help without having to necessarily having to spend 5 hours a day doing it,” she said. “You hop on when you can and try to schedule an appointment.”

The Facebook group started on Feb. 8 and had over 850 members this week. Boblits had to buy a personal computer to handle the increasing workload. All told, she spends about 6 hours a day on the effort. But to her, the hours are worth it to keep people safe and accelerate the return to normal.

“If nothing else, I have learned in the last month that there is a lot that can be done when a community comes together and focuses on the greater good.” she said. “I can’t get a vaccine right now, but I know that working to get shots in arms is making me safer, it’s making you safer, it’s making my parents safer, and that, to me, makes all of these hours and stiff neck and cramped hands worth it.”

Facebook groups for vaccine-seekers are not new to Maryland — one of the largest, “Maryland Vaccine Hunters,” has over 50,000 members — but many of them serve as places to share tips for getting a vaccine and vent frustrations with the process. Harford’s pairs volunteers directly with people who need the vaccine while also offering a supportive outlet for vaccine-seekers.

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People from all over the country have joined the group, Boblits said — some from as far away as California, seeking a vaccine for family members who live in Maryland.

For those who have not gotten the shot, Robin Frutchey is there. The 42-year-old mental health therapist from Bel Air has helped 30 people schedule a vaccination through her admitted stubbornness and quick-clicking, she said with a laugh — traits that serve her well in nabbing appointments before they are filled.

“I am really fast on the computer,” she said. “I always get the concert tickets; I always get those things that sell out.”

Frutchey, who runs a private practice, started helping others get the vaccine after joining several COVID-related Facebook groups including Boblits’. She generally spends two to three hours a day, off-and-on, helping schedule vaccine appointments. Because she works in health care, she has received the vaccine. While she was hesitant at first — she did not want to take up a shot that could vaccinate someone else — she resolved to do more after being inoculated.

“I kind of felt like, now I have a vaccination under my belt there has to be more I can do,” she said.

Many of the people she has helped schedule are seniors, Frutchey said, who have tried for weeks without success to get an appointment and are relieved when she finds a time slot for them. That leads to thank you cards and, once, an edible arrangement landing in her mailbox. She said she appreciates the thanks she gets, but the feeling of helping those who spend long, fruitless hours seeking a shot is its own reward.

“It is not going to be easy for anyone, but it should not take like five weeks, night and day, [to get an appointment],” Frutchey said.

For Kingsville resident Lillian Deeble, scheduling an appointment really was five weeks of frustration and anxiety. She had been trying to get the vaccine since it was rolled out; while Gov. Larry Hogan was first announcing the vaccine’s availability, she was on the phone, calling to get herself on lists to get the vaccine. But as the weeks passed by, and nobody called her back, she started looking elsewhere.

“I had been working for five weeks on my own,” she said. “I’m 66; I have rarely had such frustration trying to get anything.”

Deeble stumbled on the Harford County group while searching for the larger Maryland Vaccine Hunters page and saw they were assigning volunteers to help people pre-register. She put her name on the list, and Frutchey was assigned to help her. Deeble said she was willing to drive anywhere in the state to get a vaccine. In the end, that was unnecessary. Within hours — just after midnight — Frutchey had found her an appointment at the local pharmacy she had been going to for 20 years. She got her shot on Saturday and scheduled her second.

“I really am moved and grateful that there are young people … that are giving up their precious time to try to help mostly us older people who aren’t as knowledgeable about to operate in this technical world,” Deeble said.

Kara Redding works at her Bel Air home Thursday trying to help people find and schedule their COVID-19 vaccine shots. Redding one of several members of the Facebook group Harford Citizens Crush Covid-19 created by fellow Bel Air resident Mary Boblits in early February that serves as a space for vaccine-seekers in Harford County.
Kara Redding works at her Bel Air home Thursday trying to help people find and schedule their COVID-19 vaccine shots. Redding one of several members of the Facebook group Harford Citizens Crush Covid-19 created by fellow Bel Air resident Mary Boblits in early February that serves as a space for vaccine-seekers in Harford County. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Kara Redding, 43 of Bel Air, has helped about a dozen people get signed up in her free time. Working remotely at an accounting firm, she spends about two hours of her day navigating vaccination websites to help others get shots, sometimes on weekends. She got involved with the group after responding to the Harford County Health Department’s call for volunteers to help get seniors vaccinated.

The idea for helping others get appointments followed naturally after that and was in line with Redding’s previous work at nonprofits.

“Service has been a part of my life for a long time,” she said. “This gave me an opportunity to feel like I was doing something — I could physically do something.”

Redding sometimes has to wake up early or stay up late to catch appointments right when they are posted to pharmacies’ websites. She has tried to schedule some to go to one of Maryland’s mass-vaccination sites but has not had any luck with them yet, she said.

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All those she helped, Redding said, have been grateful and gracious through a confusing and difficult time; her heart goes out to people who struggle to use technology. With the registration process being compared to whack-a-mole on social media and many Marylanders frustrated by the lack of vaccine availability, Redding thinks back to her own family and said she hopes to set an example for them — or at least show her kids how good that can spring from trying circumstances.

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“This has been such a weird thing; it has been such a strange experience for everyone,” Redding said. “I want them to see the example of the good that can come out of it, which is people helping people.”

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