NPR’s Audie Cornish speaks with Diana Rastegayeva about starting a service to help people in her community access vaccines during her maternity leave, which has now snowballed into a whole operation.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Back in January, Diana Rastegayeva had a problem many have faced in the last few months.
DIANA RASTEGAYEVA: My grandfather, who’s in his 70s and doesn’t speak a lot of English, you know, I really wanted him to be vaccinated. And there was no way he was going to be able to do that himself.
CORNISH: Well, she got her grandfather an appointment in Florida, and then she helped his friends. She was on maternity leave.
RASTEGAYEVA: I have two kids. But my younger one, her name is Greta, and she’s 4 1/2 months old. To be honest, I started doing this actually on my phone while nursing her.
CORNISH: Soon she was giving other people advice on how to book appointments where she lives in Massachusetts, and the whole thing snowballed. She’s now running the Massachusetts COVID Vaccination Health Network with hundreds of volunteers. There’s a website, translators, tech support, assistance for anyone to navigate the vaccine process. They’ve helped to book more than 10,000 appointments. When I spoke to Diana earlier, I asked her what kinds of requests they get.
RASTEGAYEVA: There’s so many examples, but I’ll give one just from this week. A volunteer reached out to me, and she asked whether we could reimburse her for overnight shipping. And I was like, well, sure, but why, right? What’s the reason? She explained that she had finally booked two 90-year-old Massachusetts residents, a couple, appointments for vaccines. They’d been trying for months. They finally got one at their local CVS.
These people had no Internet, no email, no smartphones. So the husband walked down to CVS and asked how – on the day of their appointment how they could, you know, access their appointment. And they said, well, you need a printed confirmation email. And he explained, I don’t have email. I don’t have Internet. I don’t know anyone who has email. And so our volunteer had registered with her email, and she printed it out and overnighted them the confirmation.
But how is that the system we have? First of all, how her 90-year-olds still got vaccinated? And then second of all, how is that the barrier that we put in front of them?
CORNISH: What has this been like for you? I don’t know if you were working outside of the home before you had your second child, but I’m sure this isn’t how you were planning to spend maternity leave.
RASTEGAYEVA: No. And actually, yes, I do have a full-time job, actually, in life sciences outside of, you know, my maternity leave. And I’ve just delayed my start back to work by two more weeks just to try to further stabilize, you know, our group and make sure that we’re not, you know, leaving people in the lurch, and we have some structure in place for that.
CORNISH: Do you still feel like you need that? I mean, I’m understanding that Massachusetts is actually one of the best states in terms of vaccination rates. I mean, are you still finding a need for the service?
RASTEGAYEVA: Yes. Absolutely. I think on sheer numbers, which is, of course, what I think gets most commonly quoted, I think Massachusetts, you know, is doing a great job. But again, it’s the who and the how and the experience. And I think if you look at the underlying data, for example, on race and ethnicity, we don’t look particularly good in terms of access. And we hear from so many people who are desperate to be vaccinated and just cannot sign up or cannot get appointments in their local area, don’t have access to transit. Vaccination sites are closed on the days that they have off from work or they close too early.
So I think there’s still tremendous need. And until Massachusetts really defragments the vaccination system and puts more under the preregistration process, all they’ve done so far is kind of take 50% of the appointments out of the system into an opaque preregistration system – we don’t know how those are really being distributed – and left everyone to fight for the remaining 50%.
CORNISH: And finally, what does your grandfather think of all this?
RASTEGAYEVA: He’s – you know, he’s quite proud. He likes the story – the Genesis story, in a way – of helping him and his friends. You know, he’s been down in Florida, actually, so this is where that started. But he’s actually able to come up. He’s coming to Massachusetts this week. I haven’t seen him in, you know, a year and a half because of the pandemic. And I’m excited, and I think he’s quite proud.
CORNISH: Well, Diana Rastegayeva, thank you so much for speaking with us.
RASTEGAYEVA: Thank you so much, Audie.
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