The vaccine booking process has been likened to Soviet bread lines, or to the Massapequa D.M.V. But these comparisons fail to capture the particularly digital nature of the bureaucratic dystopia. There are too many Web sites to check, and not enough people answering phones. Portals crash, confirmed appointments vanish. Slots go not to the most at risk but to the most tech-savvy. People could use some I.T. support. A designated grandkid? Millennial concierge?
“I prefer ‘vaccine yenta,’ ” Carolyn Ruvkun, who has secured about a hundred appointments for friends and strangers, and sent links and tips to many more, said the other day. Ruvkun, who works in TV and lives in Windsor Terrace with a boyfriend, Will, and a kitten, Schmooze, is one of an army of Good Samaritan vaccine bookers. “It helps that I’m unemployed,” she said.
Being of good health and sound moral character, Ruvkun, who is twenty-nine, has not yet scheduled a vaccination for herself, but has seen the process play out since the first phase: her mother is a cardiologist, her boyfriend is a teacher, and her grandmother is an octogenarian. The system was largely broken, but she was pretty good at it. She began helping friends’ parents. “On the phone they’d want to catch up,” she said. “I’d be, like, ‘We’ll catch up later, give me your date of birth!’ I’d call my friends to say, ‘Sorry I yelled at your dad.’ ”
Ruvkun and Will were sitting in their apartment, in their pajamas, laptops out. Schmooze puttered. (“She’s very excited by cursors.”) It was Sunday morning. At one minute and one second after eight, New York would begin accepting appointments for people with preëxisting conditions. Ruvkun had a list of six names. First up: her father. At 7:55, Ruvkun called her brother, who’d offered to help, and put him on speakerphone. Web pages were loaded. Sentences became clipped. At 8:01, they hit Refresh.
“This is so weird! It’s blank right now,” Ruvkun said. Glitch. Typing commenced. Muttering followed. Two boxes popped up on the page, each with options for “Yes” and “No,” but their corresponding questions were missing. Were they of the “Do you have a comorbidity” variety? Or more like “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” An optimist, Ruvkun’s brother clicked on “Yes” to both.
“Appointments available!” he said. At 8:14, after more clicking, he declared, “Appointment confirmed!”
“I’m relieved but also confused,” Ruvkun said. Next up: Ramona, the grandmother of one of Will’s former students. Ruvkun managed to find one non-crashing Web site, but it placed her in a virtual queue forty-three minutes long. “I haven’t seen this before,” she said.
While waiting, she said, “One thing I try to do is just reassure people that this is insane.” She has picked up a few scoops. (The Flatbush Y.M.C.A.—phone only—was a gold mine for locals.) She has yet to fail, although some appointments take several days to book. At 9:02, her computer dinged. “Got through!” she said. “I think it worked!”
Four hopefuls remained: a relative, a stranger, two people with heart conditions. “People come to me through existing communities,” she said. “I’m just a link. Basically, my starting point is: we live in a society!” Early on, she joined a group of techies who created NYC Vaccine List, a Web site that collects the latest intelligence and displays all availabilities on one page. She exchanges tips with unions, senior centers, and a few city bureaucrats. Will’s students referred essential-worker parents. Her assistance was offered to churchgoers and at synagogues. “Someone joked, ‘My rabbi is going to call you. I’ll need him for my son’s bar mitzvah, so please speak to the rabbi!’ ”
After another hour of virtual putzing, Ruvkun was ready to call it a day. Schmooze had a 10:40 vet appointment. Ruvkun trawled Twitter one last time for tips. She reloaded a page. “Hold on one second,” she said. “I can’t believe it took me so long to find this.” More typing. “Yes! It worked!” Four more appointments, confirmed, with minutes to spare for the vet.
Later that afternoon, at a vaccination center in a gymnasium in the Bronx, Helen Mack—seventy-six, hand-sewn mask (four-ply), Ruvkun bookee, nervous but sufficiently prayed for—didn’t look when the needle went in. “It’s over?” she said. “I didn’t even feel it! Thank the Lord! It’s over!” ♦