PFLUGERVILLE, Texas (KXAN) — As a thyroid cancer survivor, Pflugerville resident Barbara Najera was sitting on pins and needles in January, anxiously awaiting her COVID-19 vaccine. With her immunocompromised status, she received high prioritization in qualifying for the vaccine.
But despite the qualifications, securing a vaccine appointment in the early days of the vaccine rollout was a full-time job, she said.
“I have a very highly compromised immune system. And so for me, when the vaccine first came out, it was incredibly important for me to find an appointment,” she said. “And so I just learned how to navigate the system to get an appointment. Now, I had to drive two and a half hours away from mine, but it was incredibly worth it to do that. But what I noticed is that it was incredibly difficult to get those appointments — it took me hours to get in to get it.”
Using her fast typing skills and faster Internet connection, Najera started booking appointments for friends and family members. Through word of mouth, news spread and she soon helped form Tex-Vax Volunteers, a grassroots volunteer group aimed at connecting Pflugerville area residents with vaccine appointments.
Using a Google form, the group would collect people’s full names, contact information, birth dates and schedule availability.
Collectively, the 10 volunteers behind Tex-Vax Volunteers helped book more than 1,800 appointments, largely for older residents. Individually, Najera is responsible for more than 1,200 of those.
“Our group registered over 1,800 people, just from being fast on the computer and just from having a stronger Wi-Fi than other people have and knowing how to use the system,” she said. “So it worked out incredibly well, to help that many people. And to see the impact that it was making on their families as well? Like the relief that they had in getting their vaccine, it was great.”
Throughout the pandemic, the 78660 zip code — which includes Pflugerville and areas within northeast Austin — has reported some of the highest COVID-19 positive tests. Cumulatively, there have been 9,842 confirmed positive tests within the zip code.
However, the area is currently one of the highest for new vaccinations, in the second tier of Austin Public Health’s system, as of Aug. 14. With a zip code population of 91,300, nearly 64% of the eligible population was fully vaccinated, as of Aug. 16.
Once Pfizer’s use was authorized for people ages 12 and older in May, Najera said the group decided to forego its mass-scale vaccine appointment assistance. The decision was due to more private patient information requested and the legality of dealing with minors.
However, Tex-Vax Volunteers has paved the way for the emergence of new grassroots organizations, including VaxTogetherAustin. Katie Van Winkle, head of community engagement for VaxTogetherAustin, was a prominent member of Tex-Vax Volunteers.
While each vaccine appointment booked was entirely voluntary and at the request of the patient, Najera said it was reaffirming to see so many people coming together to support and protect one another and their community. As a qualifying recipient of the third COVID-19 vaccine, or “booster shot,” she said she’s eagerly looking forward to her November appointment and a further return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
In that return to pre-pandemic normalcy, she’s reverted her efforts to philanthropy in another realm: securing enough food and resources for families financially impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Find your local food pantries, find your local organizations that are helping people because COVID wasn’t just a virus that locked us all down,” she said. “It stopped people from being able to work for being able to go into the office and make money to take care of their families.”
When reflecting on those initial appointment bookings, she said the art of securing appointments in those early days of the rollout led to a lot of late nights and high-stake situations for recipients desperately in need of a vaccine. However, Najera said it also led her to connecting to so many community members she might not otherwise have met.
One story sticks out in her memory, of a family who had lost one of their siblings to COVID-19. Through Tex-Vax Volunteers, Najera was able to book appointments for the two remaining siblings and their parents on the same day.
“One of the daughters called me after to let me know the sense of relief that she felt wash over that car as each of them received their vaccine,” she said. “And so stories like that were why there were nights I stayed up until two or three o’clock in the morning to get vaccines for people — because there were people who really, really wanted it.”