Mt. Airy 'finders' get over 700 neighbors vaccinated

by Len Lear
Posted 3/31/21

It's not as if Josephine (Jo) Winter, 40, of West Mt. Airy, was not busy enough before she became a “vaccine finder.”

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Mt. Airy 'finders' get over 700 neighbors vaccinated

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It's not as if Josephine (Jo) Winter, 40, of West Mt. Airy, was not busy enough before she became a “vaccine finder.” A graduate of Central High School (257th Class), Winter earned a master's degree from Penn and a PhD (in urban education) from Temple as well as post-doctoral work at UCLA. She is now a qualitative research specialist and consultant in higher education. Also keeping her busy are two children, aged 9 and 5.

But becoming a “vaccine finder” made her much, much busier. “I first began this whole thing by trying to get my own mother vaccinated,” she explained last week. “This was in mid-January once the vaccine rollout slowly began. It was quickly evident that the whole thing was not only a horribly organized nightmare beset by the mistakes of the previous administration but in no way, shape or form accessible for older folks.

“I then set out to help my in-laws and my brother’s in-laws get vaccinated. It was while making these appointments that I was able to establish a relationship with a fabulous woman who was scheduling appointments for the most vulnerable among us. I explained how so many of the older folks my family members knew either didn’t have internet access, didn’t have family in the area or were just so frightened by the prospect of having to navigate the scheduling process that they were paralyzed.

“Don’t forget, many of these older folks had been isolated for the better part of a year already and were desperate to try to regain some sense of normalcy and basic human interaction, and that dire, most basic human need is what compelled me to take this on to a larger scale. I mean, at one point my own mother hadn’t touched another human being for almost three months. It was heartbreaking.

“There was no way I could let these folks continue to suffer, especially being seniors and having lived their lives and gone through so much already. Anyway, I was able to schedule a few dozen folks through my first contact. After that site ran out of vaccine, I joined various groups on the internet that provide community, support and tips for 'finders' like me, those who help find appointments.”

Winter stayed up every single night for three or four weeks until 1-2 a.m. until the appointments “dropped” and she would snag whatever she could. She pulled a few all-nighters, even getting lucky one morning when RiteAid dropped hundreds of appointments around 4 a.m. Making appointments individually was very rewarding, but Jo was still hoping to make a connection that would enable her to schedule more people at a time.

So Jo called around until she found a pharmacist who listened and cared and understood about the limitations of online scheduling for older folks. “She has allowed me to schedule 40-50 seniors at a time every two weeks,” Jo said. “I cast a wide net to gather these seniors. Everyone on our team asks folks they know, who ask folks they know, and so on. I also try to help folks who ask for help on NextDoor and the Covid MatchMaker group on FaceBook.”

Jo and her team of volunteers have gotten vaccines for more than 700 people, about 60 percent of them from Mt. Airy, as of late March. “But I want to emphasize that this is not about me,” she said. “This has been a true team effort with many people helping. I could not have done this without the entire team!”

One beneficiary of Jo and her team of volunteers was Karen Rile, of Chestnut Hill. “In January I was struggling to find vaccination appointments for my parents, ages 86 and 90,” said Rile. “I think of myself as a pretty good researcher, but no matter how hard I tried, nothing.

“Josephine saw my post on the local NextDoor network and contacted me privately to let me know she could help. Within two weeks she had found appointments for both of my parents. They are now fully vaccinated, and I cannot express how relieved I am. She’s also found appointments for several friends and friends’ parents and for my mother-in-law, who is 89. I am so grateful for her help.”

Sandy Reilly, 74, of Mt. Airy, told us, “I was having trouble signing up myself and my husband, Libby Calamia, who is 93 and has had two bouts with cancer. I had signed up with Covid Drexel and was about to sign up with the Black Doctors Consortium, but then Jo told me she was concerned about the older people on the block who were not so tech-savvy. And she did the most wonderful thing out of the goodness of her heart. She wound up getting us both vaccine appointments at the Norristown Health Center. She also got my sister and her husband, who has fourth-stage lung cancer, the vaccine appointments.”

Linda Slodki, 63, founder of the Mt. Airy Art Garage, added, “I was going crazy trying to get an appointment for my wife (Arleen Olshan), who is 76. Jo said, 'Can I help?' She wound up getting appointments for both of us. Jo is up in the middle of the night trying to find openings and 'one-offs.' People are so filled with relief and appreciation when they get the vaccine.

“Some of us who were helped by Jo are now helping others to get the vaccine. I spend about one hour of each day on this. It is so heartwarming to pay it forward. We have gotten calls from neighbors about their neighbors. It is especially hard on people who live alone. If they can't drive, we will drive them to the vaccination site. Quite a few have been at ShopRite in the Northeast. Three pharmacists there — Sheena, Jessica and Andy — have been extremely helpful and cooperative.”

Ed. note: If this group of selfless neighbors were an official non-profit organization, we were put their website here, but this group does not have a website, and they asked us not to add contact information here because they are already overwhelmed. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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