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Florida volunteers pitch in to help seniors get vaccination appointments

Thousands of seniors have received help from Facebook groups and individual volunteers in getting their shots.
Jackie Mallozzi, 71, of Safety Harbor, left, helped Skip Meadows, 79, of Safety Harbor, find a coronavirus vaccine in Pasco County recently when reservations to get the shot(s) in Pinellas County were hard to find. Mallozzi is among a group of Pinellas seniors that are helping register fellow seniors for the coronavirus vaccine. While they are happy to chip in the help, some say it reveals flaws in the registration system and leaves out those who don’t have a network of family or friends.
Jackie Mallozzi, 71, of Safety Harbor, left, helped Skip Meadows, 79, of Safety Harbor, find a coronavirus vaccine in Pasco County recently when reservations to get the shot(s) in Pinellas County were hard to find. Mallozzi is among a group of Pinellas seniors that are helping register fellow seniors for the coronavirus vaccine. While they are happy to chip in the help, some say it reveals flaws in the registration system and leaves out those who don’t have a network of family or friends. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 15
Updated Mar. 15

SAFETY HARBOR — Three days a week, Jackie and Joe Mallozzi and Mary Doyle log onto their laptops and iPads, ready their phones and pull out lists of information about the seniors they are trying to schedule for coronavirus vaccinations.

They know the systems — that the Pasco County site opens slots on Sunday afternoon, that getting a Publix appointment is hit or miss. For weeks, the three have helped people like themselves find their way to a shot — calling each other with progress updates all the while.

“I like to have a purpose,” said Jackie Mallozzi, a 71-year-old retired elementary school teacher who, like the other two, is already vaccinated. “The people are so grateful.”

Across Florida, good Samaritans have pooled information and time to help people 65 and older get vaccinated. Some have built Facebook groups to share tips and answer questions. Others, like the Safety Harbor trio, wake up each morning and spend hours crunched over a computer screen, punching numbers into their cell phones. They’ve even driven people to vaccine appointments.

Florida’s three-month vaccine rollout began chaotically, with registration site crashes and phone lines returning endless busy signals. The volunteers have helped those without internet access or hours to spend on the phone.

As of Tuesday, Florida had given 3.6 million people at least one vaccine dose, including about 2.6 million people 65 and older, according to Florida Department of Health data.

Mallozzi was forced into retirement by the pandemic. She taught reading online for Oldsmar Elementary School after the pandemic hit, but the school didn’t keep the program in the fall.

On most Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, Mallozzi and her 66-year-old husband spread out their six devices in their home office at 7 a.m., and they’re off on the hunt for appointments.

Interest comes mostly by word of mouth, Mallozzi said. Sometimes people refer seniors to her, but she’s also registered people from her Jazzercise club and other friends around Pinellas County. She has helped dozens of people find shots so far.

The mission is integral, said Mary Doyle, a 70-year-old Safety Harbor resident. Most people don’t have someone who can help them work the system.

Their clients fill out forms with their contact information and health information. Once they have scheduled the appointments, the volunteers shred and discard the forms.

Mallozzi and others are even holding a training session at Safety Harbor Public Library this month to show others how to register people on the Pinellas County vaccination website.

“I found the process challenging when I was trying to get onto the patient portal,” Mallozzi said.

Farther south, Katherine Quirk, 44, and Russell Schwartz, 42, started the South Florida COVID-19 Vaccination Info Facebook group on Jan. 1. The Parkland couple knew from experience with their own parents that seniors might have technological difficulty making appointments.

They intended to help those in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, Quirk said, but quickly expanded to Naples, Orlando and Tampa.

“In a matter of days, we realized the entire state of Florida really needed help,” Quirk said.

The Facebook group has more than 30,000 members and 100 volunteers who have booked at least 2,500 vaccinations, Quirk said. The couple books appointments, too, often signing on after dinner and working until 11 p.m.

“I think what’s so great about our page is that we do have these volunteers, but really, all the members that support and help each other,” Quirk said. “So when someone has a question about an appointment or a concern — or they just want information and they make a post — within minutes, there’s tons of comments with answers and support or keep-your-head-up type of comments.”

And the praise floods in daily.

On a Facebook Live session last week, the couple answered questions from group members.

“We thank you for all your hard work,” commented Marsha Newman Schwartz. “Amazing!!”

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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