Roberto Muñoz was growing increasingly frustrated and discouraged by trying and missing out on scheduling Covid-19 vaccination appointments online for his 88-year-old father Roberto and 85-year-old mother Margarita.
As a health care provider, the St. Paul’s, Pomona senior warden had already been vaccinated, and desperately wanted the same protection for his aged parents.
“Both my parents have bronchial issues. My whole thing was, the sooner they can get the vaccine, the sooner they can get the second shot, the sooner their risk is lowered,” he said.
“Both my parents have Medicare and Medi-Cal, but their health care providers could not do anything for them,” he added. “I was there the other day, picking up a prescription and … instead of trying to help a woman who needed it, they basically told her to just go online and keep trying. I cannot see my almost 90-year-old dad being told that.”
That’s when Grace Bowden, 31, a friend and also a St. Paul’s parishioner, zoomed in with an offer — working remotely from home, she had the capability to monitor websites and book appointments as they became available. And she had the desire to help.
Very quickly, the elder Muñozes had both appointments and vaccinations at Dodger Stadium. “And now, Grace is on the lookout for their second appointments,” Munoz said.
For Bowden, the effort “started with my helping my grandparents and then neighbors. I sit at my computer all day and I’d see appointments pop open and I’d ask people, do you know anyone who needs an appointment?”
Friends and neighbors began telling others; word spread. The effort grew. Soon she had a group of friends volunteering to help her book the appointments.
Since early January, the group has assisted about 120 people. “There is not one person who’s asked for our help that we haven’t been able to book,” Bowden said.
“Someone called me yesterday and said, ‘You can’t see me, but I’m jumping up and down.’ To hear that in people’s voices has been pretty magical.”
The current online vaccination scheduling system, unfortunately, “is off limits to so many,” Bowden added. “I’m tech-savvy and it’s not that easy for me, either. It takes a lot of time and determination to get just one slot. And if you don’t have smart phones or difficulties navigating the Internet …”
“I will also post on Facebook when slots are open that we can see, with a message: ‘book now or message us if you need help,’” she said. “The appointments go really fast. I think the best way is to have a group of people who have submitted their names and information. Often we don’t have time to message someone; it’s faster if I book it for them, because the appointments can disappear within minutes.”
On Feb. 2, Bowden had just returned from driving a neighbor to get vaccinated who needs to travel to visit a daughter ill with cancer in another state. “She told me if she wasn’t able to get an appointment, she wouldn’t be able to go see her daughter. It was super emotional because she realized, ‘I’m going to be safe and protected and able to go see her’.”
She is also motivated because “I’ve had a large number of family members get Covid,” Bowden said. “I’ve seen the effects firsthand and have seen how it’s affected and isolated people and had mental health repercussions. So, anything I can do to help give people relief, I want to.”
Booking the appointments “can change someone’s outlook. They can see light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “It’s also something of a challenge. It’s an incredible experience of just booking one appointment for someone who otherwise wouldn’t be able to. You can hear it in their voices. You get photos back of people getting their vaccine. It feels very life-giving.
“I would just love for people to know that there’s a whole kind of group looking out for you. I stay up late at night, thinking about them and hoping to get them appointments.”
Her goal is to grow an online presence, especially among people of color, under-served communities hard-hit by the pandemic. “I know people are struggling. I am hoping Facebook will be a good tool. If we can just get the word out, we can help.”
Muñoz said he is translating the group’s materials into Spanish to support Bowden’s efforts.
“I’m so grateful. I’m very, very grateful to Grace,” he said. “But, having been involved in The Episcopal Church, and particularly with people at St. Paul’s, I’m not the least bit surprised.
“To me, there is a lack of understanding in the world about how much we love each other and what we do for each other. It is one of the things I really love about being at St. Paul’s, and being part of the Episcopal diocese,” he said. “I know we are looking out for each other.”