BY GLORIA STRAVELLI
METUCHEN — They tiptoe around in the early hours of the morning when their households are quiet and there is an opportunity to help keep vulnerable people safe from the COVID-19 virus.
That’s when volunteers for Metuchen’s #Team Vaccine do the vital work of tracking down and booking vaccination appointments for some of the borough’s most vulnerable residents.
“Typically most of the action begins at 11:45 p.m. and goes to 2:30 a.m. We call those the ‘magic hours,’ all of the chain pharmacies release their appointments at midnight,” explained Laura Hale, a member of Team Vaccine.
“I’m a mom of two young kids. I go to bed and then get up at 2 a.m. Other members of the team are full-time parents, have full-time careers. It’s really amazing how selfless this group is.
“I’m tech savvy so I know what to do. I have multiple devices. You have to move so fast.”
Hale said she had been helping people book appointments on her own and she knew some friends who were also helping.
“I started to connect to a bunch of different people in town and we pooled our resources and this is how Team Vaccine was created,” she said.
“We didn’t all know each other beforehand, I feel like we’re all best friends now. There are people on the team who saw our post on the mayor’s Facebook page and emailed, ‘I am so inspired by this I want to help.’ ”
Mayor Jonathan Busch said residents reached out to the borough, especially those who are not tech-proficient and had been unable to book appointments online, which was the impetus for Team Vaccine.
“I heard from many people that it was really difficult for them to find appointments,” he said. “We assembled a team of resourceful volunteers, people who have no problem getting up in the middle of the night and know where to go and how to get appointments for people.
“We started off with the first batch of people and it was incredible how [the volunteers] turned things around. If you look at the comments on my social media page it was incredible how people responded.”
So far, Hale said, the Team Vaccine volunteers have booked some 900 appointments in a four-week period, giving priority to seniors.
Help also extends to connecting people in need with the food pantry in town and working with the Visiting Nurse Association to bring a mobile vaccine clinic to the homebound, she said.
Hale explained that a form was created to facilitate the outreach.
“With the help of Councilwoman Sheri-Rose Rubin we created a Google form,” she said. “We have some real tech-savvy volunteers who helped design this, it’s an interface for us, all the responses come into the Google document and we just get the list of people.
“Everybody reads the list and if you can book, we book people. We try to cater to their request. There are people who only want to stay within 10 miles from town or they can only go on a weekend.
“We ask what days are you available? Do you need transportation? We also have some volunteers who drive the seniors, a couple of people who will pick them up, wait for them, then drive them home. We’re booking for anybody who’s eligible. We’re just prioritizing seniors.”
According to Hale, people are grateful for the team’s help.
“We do have a ton of people writing in on social media and they want to find a way to give back, what can they do to thank us? They’re like, ‘Where do you guys meet?’ And we’re like, ‘We don’t meet, we’re just people at home at night!’
“We’re up in the middle of the night, that’s essentially when we get the bulk of the appointments and we do a lot of outreach at home during the day. We call the seniors on the list and talk to them. We had a day at the senior center. We had a long list of seniors and everybody has gotten an appointment already. It was amazing.”
“We have this ‘It Takes a Borough’ initiative,” Hale said. “It was created at the beginning of the pandemic to help the people who are homebound or who couldn’t get groceries, and now it turned into the demand for vaccines.
“We have this network of people in town. You know, Metuchen people want to help Metuchen people and I think a lot of people are very appreciative.”
To coordinate, members of Team Vaccine check in with each other every night.
“A group message goes out every night, it’s a group chat,” Hale said. “We’re able to connect and collaborate that way. I have Mr. so and so, got him in Plainfield. So that there is no double booking.”
Hale said Team Vaccine would likely remain active for another couple of weeks.
“I think with the recent increase in eligibility and the lack of vaccine still, there are still some people who need some help, not just seniors. It has opened up but we are only helping people who are eligible.
“Metuchen’s a small community, a tight-knit community. This is the true definition of community.”
“We’re a very close-knit community, Busch agreed.
“I heard from many people that it was really difficult for them to find appointments. We have tremendous pride in this program. It’s one of those things you think of it and then it actually achieves everything you’d hoped.
“This is the best form of volunteerism, just do the right thing by your neighbors,” he said. “We’re so happy and proud of our work and lucky to have these incredible volunteers who are highly resourceful. We’re a small town but we’ve been doing some pretty big time things.”
For questions or to follow up on a request for an appointment, email Team Vaccine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to the borough website: To be eligible for help with booking a vaccine appointment, you must be a resident age 18 or older, be in an eligible category, and register with the New Jersey Vaccine Registry at https://covidvaccine.nj.gov/covid.
Those who are eligible and would like assistance from Team Vaccine, should complete the form on the website at https://forms.gle/ZxL1D6bAFcAEFQ8F8 and a team member will get started on their behalf.
Be sure the information provided is correct, including the provided email address and that texts and phone calls can be received at the provided cell phone number.
A mobile vaccine unit was planned for April 29 at the food pantry at the First Presbyterian Church of Metuchen, 270 Woodbridge Ave.