Marco Patriots book more than 500 COVID-19 vaccine appointments for seniors

Marco Island seasonal resident Judy Volker comes to the island during winter to enjoy its warm weather and friendly hospitality, but this year was different because her friends were struggling to get COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

"We have many friends who are 65 and older that were struggling so much with finding appointments using the technology and getting through the different websites," Volker said.

As she started to book vaccine appointments for them, Volker, 67, said she saw on social media that other people on the island were helping their neighbors do the same.

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In late January, an emergency response nonprofit called Marco Patriots started bringing together dozens of volunteers like Volker to help people who are 65 and older get the prized vaccine.

Over 40 volunteers have booked 544 appointments free of charge for mostly senior islanders, seasonal resident Rick Grove, 59, said Tuesday. Out of those, 100 were 85 years old or older, he said.

How it works

The Patriots have streamlined their course of action since they officially started on Jan. 28, said Erin Mia Milchman, board president of the organization.

Milchman, 52, said she receives requests from seniors via email but sometimes through phone calls as early as 7 a.m. because many do not have email. She said the seniors that call her always have a story to tell.

"We do not only talk about their struggles to get a vaccine appointment but also about how life has been for them for the last year. Many of them have only left their homes to go to medical appointments," Milchman said.

Marco Patriots volunteers from left, Sandy Fuhrmann, Kathy Rysak, Sherie Tuohy, Mary Bart, Nancy Bethel, and Susan Revall pose for a portrait, Wednesday, March 17, 2021, at Frank E. Mackle Community Park on Marco Island. Marco Patriots have booked over 500 COVID-19 vaccine appointments for the elderly since late January.

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Milchman then emails the senior's personal information to Grove, who works behind the scenes updating a spreadsheet to make sure nobody is left behind. Grove said he works in IT for a retail company.

"It naturally felt like the opportunity that I've been looking for (to help others)," Grove said.

Volker said volunteers like her use the information from Grove's spreadsheet to book appointments on several pharmacy websites on behalf of the seniors. She said these slots often become available between midnight and 5 a.m. 

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"The minute that we see something open, we will take our lists of names and start booking appointments for them. We are just furiously typing away," Volker said.

Volker said the organization is also registering seniors in several public and private vaccine waiting lists and paying a local ride-hailing company to take people to their appointments when they are not able to drive themselves.

Milchman said she is proud of the work that the volunteers have done.

"When volunteers are done with their list of names, they ask for more to make sure that as many people as possible get vaccinated," Milchman said.

A feeling of relief

Volker said she felt anxious while trying to book her own vaccination appointment, and she did not want others going through the same experience. Volker said she saw how a 96-year-old woman "jumped with joy" when she learned the Patriots found her a vaccine appointment slot.

"When I started doing it for my friends, when I saw the joy and the relief on their faces, it is that look that drives me," Volker said.

Volker said others have called her crying after learning the Patriots booked a vaccine appointment for them. 

"It means that they will soon be able to see their children and grandchildren," Volker said.

Marco Patriots volunteer coordinator Susan Revall poses for a portrait, Wednesday, March 17, 2021, at Frank E. Mackle Community Park on Marco Island.

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Volker said booking vaccine appointments has become easier over time.

"In early January it was so hard to find appointments. Now it is getting a little easier," Volker said.

Susan Revall, volunteer coordinator with the Patriots, said seniors have been trying for weeks to get a vaccine appointment, and sometimes the Patriots are able too book it for them overnight. Revall said Tuesday she has booked more than 100 appointments.

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"These people are struggling, and the system does not work for them," Revall said.

Revall said that knowing they have a vaccine appointment means the world for many seniors.

"Just knowing they have that appointment to go get the shots is such a relief for them," Revall said.

Milchman said it has been very emotional for many seniors to get the vaccine.

"It is their ticket to safety and to freedom," Milchman said. 

Milchman said people who are 65 or older or people deemed "extremely vulnerable" by a physician (form required) can send her an email with the following information: name, date of birth, address, email, cellphone number, Florida resident status, and date and times of ongoing medical treatments like physical therapy, dialysis and chemotherapy.

For more information, contact Erin Mia Milchman via email at erinmia.milchman@marcopatriots.org.

Contact Omar at omar.rodriguezortiz@naplesnews.com, and follow him on Twitter as @Omar_fromPR. Support his work by subscribing to Naples Daily News.