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Local Vaccine Fairy Brigade member helps Harvard residents

“There’s a sense of excitement with every success. We know the system and how to get around the glitches, and we’re taking the stress off people,” said Harvard resident Melissa DelRossi in a phone conversation about her work with the Vaccine Fairy Brigade.

Since February, when vaccination sites opened to people 65 and older, the group of women has booked appointments for about 750 people—and those are just the ones on the spreadsheet. DelRossi said they are tapering off, drawing the line at requests from people such as teenage Dunkin’ workers, but are still available to share tips and help out if someone is really stuck.

DelRossi, who works in a small physical therapy clinic, learned firsthand the frustration of getting a vaccine appointment. Back in January, although all hospital employees—even those with no patient contact—were getting the vaccine, she and others in her private practice were not eligible. When her group did come up, she couldn’t find an opening. An assistant tried all day at work to make an appointment, with no success. That evening, DelRossi just happened upon a site that “popped up.” She frantically called her boss, and everyone in the practice ended up with appointments. While it turned out to be relatively easy for her, she had experienced just how difficult it could be to find an opening.

Melissa DelRossi scheduled an appointment for her father, Steven Merrow of Dunstable. (Courtesy photo)

As weeks went on, she heard stories from her patients and others about the frustrations of actually securing an appointment: getting up at all hours, constantly refreshing screens, waiting on hold, and losing out at the final step or being booked at a site more than an hour or two away.

DelRossi became familiar with the scheduling system and worked on getting appointments for her parents. She said her dad was furious that he would have to open an account at Walgreens just to get a vaccine there. She managed to get them first shots at CareWell Urgent Care, but then came the announcement that the clinic was canceling second appointments. There was a bit of panic, and it was a scramble to find a different location. She secured appointments for other relatives and some of her parents’ friends as well. “It snowballed,” she said. There was always a request for her to help “just this one person more.”

In early March she spotted a posting on Facebook by a woman she knew from her running team, who was offering to make appointments for people who were having trouble. DelRossi already knew she wanted to help more, and she took new inspiration from the cause that their racing team supports, the Joseph Middlemiss Big Heart Foundation. The foundation was formed to honor the memory of Joseph, a 6-year-old boy who died of a rare congenital heart disease, “by spreading his love, kindness, and compassion.” She connected with her teammate and then with eight other women, all committed to making it their mission to help those who were struggling. Their secret is being familiar with all sites, signing up for alerts, and being ready to go when appointments drop, said DelRossi.

Being in the brigade means giving up a lot of time and being persistent. CVS Pharmacy seems to have the only site that gives out a predictable schedule, posting openings four days out. The catch is, they release the details at midnight. Waiting beyond that means the slots will be gone. DelRossi also started helping her teacher friends, and then offered to help teachers in Harvard she knows through her two children, 7 and 10. Recently she was able to help some people in town who were frustrated by missing out on participation in a recent clinic held here.

A couple of stories stand out for DelRossi. She managed to get an appointment for a Stow woman at Hannaford’s in Leominster. The woman contacted DelRossi to say she had used a paper map to see where it was and had planned to make a trial run the next day. Then someone showed her Google Maps on her phone, which she had been using to text and call but for nothing else. “It talks to me!” she said. It struck DelRossi how outrageous it was to ask people who knew hardly anything about technology to navigate a complex system online.

Another older person, who managed to get to a site and was set to register, clicked on a pop-up window of vaccine facts and couldn’t get back to the original screen. When a neighbor asked for her help, DelRossi gave her instructions to a site. The plan was for the woman to get an appointment for herself, and DelRossi would make an appointment for her husband for the same time. By the time the woman was able to get onto the site, DelRossi had already booked appointments for both of them.

In an email, Melissa shared some thoughts she had while on a recent run: “The scheduling process has been compared to waiting to purchase tickets on Ticketmaster. The difference is the return on investment isn’t backstage passes to a Rolling Stones concert, it’s a ticket to hugging grandchildren; it’s a ticket to return to normal; it’s a ticket to the future. We’ve been living under a dark cloud for over a year and emotions are high. I just want to help people and am happy to do so as long as needed.”

The members of the brigade want nothing in return for their help. They are people who believe in paying it forward. “People keep wanting to give me stuff,” said DelRossi. She said she doesn’t want anything, though she was surprised and delighted by a huge bouquet of flowers delivered to her at work.

People can contact the brigade at vaccinefairybrigade@gmail.com.

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