Volunteer-run Covid vaccine scheduling line targets persistent access gaps in Lafayette

Photo by Stacy Conrad
National Guard administered vaccines at a "Sleeves Up" held at Progressive Baptist Church

Early on, the Covid pandemic’s signature challenge was testing. Today it’s vaccination. 

A volunteer-run scheduling line organized in Lafayette has been overrun with calls, while appointments go unclaimed, highlighting a persistent gap in distribution. Despite growing supply, there are people who want vaccines and are struggling to get them. 

The Covid Vaccine Scheduling Line, organized by Dr. Britni Hebert, seeks to tackle this problem in the Acadiana area. Volunteers check eligibility and make vaccine appointments, free of charge, for callers who don’t have the means or struggle to navigate sign-up pages on their own. Awareness of the scheduling line is spreading by social media, television and word of mouth. An incoming shipment of flyers will find their way into churches and grocery stores in the area to help spread awareness to potential callers. 

“We all continue to underestimate the number of people who struggle with technology. We cannot allow lack of computer access or know-how to be someone’s cause of death. Eliminating the technology barrier has shown, with force, how many people are in need and want of these life-saving vaccines,” Hebert says. 

Interested in volunteering? Email [email protected] for more information.

Processes and portals for scheduling vaccine appointments are often out of reach for patients who lack web access or struggle to navigate the healthcare system on their own. Many in the Lafayette area don’t have internet, phone service or transportation. Social isolation can mean not having a nearby family member or friend to help sign up or get to vaccine appointments. In Lafayette Parish, about 36,659 people live without broadband internet subscriptions

Older callers are more comfortable using their phones, and many have tried making appointments on their own, volunteers say, only to sit waiting on an endless queue because the phone lines are jammed or be told to sign up online. 

Louisiana 211 Contact Lead Neka Mire says logistical challenges like technological understanding and transportation access came to their attention as eligibility requirements expanded. 

Many have difficulty driving long distances or standing in long lines, according to volunteer Laura Edwards. In some census tracts in Lafayette Parish, as many as 25% of households lack cars.

“It’s funny, if there was a vaccine available to me, and I had to drive to Baton Rouge to get it, I would not think twice about it,” Edwards says. “I would get in my car, and I would rearrange anything else that was going on that day. It’s very humbling to be able to help these people who don’t have the resources to drive more than 10 miles away from their house or get confused [with directions].” 

Eventually, Hebert wants the group to offer a more reliable transportation service for those who need help getting to their appointments. 

Edwards has found it easy to manage her volunteer time between taking care of her kids, and the effort is well worth it. One man she spoke to excitedly took an appointment that he needed to get to in 30 minutes. 

“You could just hear a huge weight being lifted off of him that he was able to find [an appointment]… he was just so excited to have the opportunity to get [the vaccine],” Edwards says. 

Vaccine hesitancy among eligible populations has contributed to an abundance of appointments and so-called “waste lists” — informal waiting lists set up to distribute unused doses before they expire. Most Americans feel comfortable taking the vaccine, but 39% say they either would definitely not or probably not get the vaccine. Scheduling volunteers have encountered some of the reluctance, but the most significant hurdles callers face are logistics. Still, tamping down misinformation is a role volunteers have had to play. 

Volunteer Stacy Conrad spoke with one woman who canceled her previous appointment because a worker told her someone would be able to track her wherever she goes if she got the vaccine. 

“Most people would say ‘that’s ridiculous.’ You have to remember that these people are really scared. They’re depending on me and these other volunteers to give them accurate information,” Conrad says. “Once she trusted me enough, I was able to assure her that nobody’s going to be tracing her and that this vaccine is going to save her life.”

Scheduling appointments was almost “too easy” in their first few days of operation because of the overwhelming number of open slots, Hebert says. Now that eligibility has opened up to most people with pre-existing conditions, it is getting harder to find appointment slots for callers. She hopes that increased supplies, specifically the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, will help the state avoid the kind of shortages it experienced in January. 

The Vaccine Scheduling Line is not for convenience. It is to help those who can’t sign up on their own. 

With 107 volunteers, only 25 who are trained and active, and a little over 240 scheduled appointments in four days, the group is struggling to keep up with the number of callers. The group works consistently behind as people continue to dial in and voicemails pile up. Conrad feels her phone buzz with a new call or voicemail every few seconds. 

Hebert estimates needing at least 100 active volunteers to keep up with the caller flow. Louisiana 211, which does not schedule appointments, has begun making referrals to the scheduling line. United Way of Acadiana will open an additional volunteer base sometime next week, they physician says, bringing in reinforcement. 

While the work can be overwhelming, it’s gratifying. Callers are relieved and overjoyed when their appointments are made. Some offer celebratory beers and food to volunteers for their help, in true Louisiana fashion. 

“I’ve heard people cry in excitement. I’ve heard people scream in excitement,” Conrad says. “I had one man who could not read and write. He told me he was either going to get a ride or he was going to walk to the closest vaccine location. I had tears in my eyes… it just reminds you of how much we really do take for granted.”