- James Buck
- Ailsa O'Neil-Dunne, Volunteer vaccination scheduler, Burlington
It all started with a text in late January to Burlington High School sophomore Ailsa O'Neil-Dunne from her grandmother in New Jersey. COVID-19 vaccination appointments had opened to residents 65 and older on January 14, but she'd been trying to book an appointment for weeks with no luck. She wondered if her grandkids might be able to help.
When 16-year-old Ailsa began to investigate, she was shocked by how complicated the process was. After several weeks of constantly checking and refreshing the scheduling website for Meadowlands Racing & Entertainment, a vaccine mega-site, a slot showed up. But Ailsa didn't fill out the online form fast enough to snag it.
Eventually, she got an appointment for her granny and called to tell her the news. "That was such a great moment," said Ailsa.
The experience made her wonder: "How many other seniors are out there who don't have someone to do this for them?"
As a result of attending school remotely, Ailsa had a relatively flexible schedule. She told her granny that if she had any friends who needed help, they should contact her.
The first email she got was from Cathy and Art Del Colliano, who'd been friends with her grandmother for 40 years.
Since you could only sign up one person at a time, Ailsa enlisted her 14-year-old brother, Gus, to help. Within 24 hours, they'd secured appointments for the Del Collianos at Meadowlands that week.
Cathy told her book club about her experience, and six members contacted Ailsa. She was able to get them appointments within days. Then, those people told friends and relatives. Word of the young woman in Vermont with a knack for vaccine scheduling began to spread, not unlike the virus itself.
"I kept saying, 'Is this too much for her?'" said Cathy. "But I think she enjoyed doing it ... It blows your heart away."
Soon, Ailsa was fielding multiple requests a day. She learned when vaccination sites would release batches of appointments, and she and Gus would stay up until midnight, or set an alarm for 4 a.m., to book them.
At first their clientele was mostly senior citizens: her aunt's former first-grade teacher, a 9/11 survivor, a 90-year-old woman who'd beat cancer four times. Some had new grandchildren they hadn't been able to meet. Others had lost family members to COVID-19.
As more people became eligible, the teens began booking appointments for younger people who didn't have time to refresh their browsers obsessively, including workers at Newark Liberty International Airport, people who emailed her in Spanish and a hairstylist who'd already had the virus. Many of the vaccine clinics were only open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., which highlighted inequities in the public health system, Ailsa said.
From late January through April, Ailsa — aided by Gus during busy times — booked more than 300 vaccine appointments, mostly for New Jersey residents. And on April 17, the day she became eligible for the vaccine herself, she registered for her first shot in Vermont.
"For me, it meant freedom and a chance to return to normalcy," Ailsa said. For many of those she helped to register, she realized, the stakes were a lot higher.
"As far as I'm concerned, she saved a lot of people's lives," said Cathy.
Many have reached out to Ailsa to share their appreciation. One woman knitted her a white hat with a fluffy blue pom-pom. Another, upon learning Ailsa was a book lover, sent her a sparkly travel mug customized with her name and the words: "The world was hers for the reading." The hairstylist promised a free cut when she visited New Jersey.
Ailsa keeps a stack of heartfelt thank-you notes in a shoe box.
"I got my second dose of the vaccine today. Thank you so much for helping me get it," one of them reads. "It is a gift to me. And you were like an Angel who came into my life and made it possible."