PORTLAND, Oregon — The experience left Sister Rosalie Anderson nearly in tears.
“Every time I tried to schedule a COVID-19 vaccination appointment, it was like I met with a brick wall,” said the 79-year-old Holy Names sister.
She reached out to her doctor, attempted to navigate the Oregon Health Authority website and called the local public health information line.
“It was always, ‘No, there are no vaccines available'” or hours spent in what felt like a cyberspace rabbit hole, recalled the retired teacher and school administrator. “I finally said, ‘I’m done, I quit.’ I figured I’d be the old lady in line with the young ones when they get the vaccine.”
Anderson is not an outlier. Americans over age 65 now are eligible for the vaccine in much of the country, but many have found it difficult to book an appointment.
The Oregon religious sister, however, recently discovered her parish, The Madeleine in Northeast Portland, has a vaccine outreach for seniors. It’s focused on helping parishioners schedule their vaccinations and no one is turned away.
Within 24 hours, Sister Rosalie had a vaccination date on the calendar. “It felt like magic,” she said with a laugh.
The outreach was launched by Madeleine parishioner Margaret Scharle, a Reed College philosophy professor who’s on sabbatical.
She started the program after finding it surprisingly arduous to help her 90-year-old mother schedule an appointment.
“I’d scoured websites, waited on hold for hours and navigated the myriad roadblocks many seniors encounter before eventually getting my mom a date,” said Scharle, 47. “It left me wondering: What about those without the time and resources I had to do this?”
State officials say some of the snags people are facing are due to a demand that exceeds supply, while many Oregonians agree the Oregon Health Authority vaccination website is uniquely cumbersome.
Given the various hurdles with the rollout, “I knew there was an important role for individual citizens to help bring this vaccine effort to the masses,” said Scharle, who has the mind of a philosopher, the heart of a Catholic social justice activist, and the smarts and stamina of Fortune 500 CEO.
She saw social networks as key to an effective citizen-driven effort.
“Faith communities are one of the bedrock social networks,” Scharle told the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland. “There are others, too — libraries, senior centers, public parks — and I knew if we were able to activate existing social networks we could reach the most vulnerable.”
For the Madeleine program, volunteers contact all seniors at the parish via email or phone to make sure they can secure a vaccination.
They built a website with consolidated information about vaccination locations, open appointment slots and eligibility. There’s an email address for people to contact Scharle with questions. Parish volunteers also offer to help connect parishioners with ride services. Postvaccine they check in to see how the senior is doing and drop off homemade goodies.
Seniors are an especially isolated group, and like people of all ages “have a lot of social and spiritual and psychological needs right now,” said Scharle. “This effort can be an inroad for that, as well. Fellow community members can ask: ‘What do you need as a human being?'”
Scharle, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and member of the parish council, said it’s the mission of the church “to seek out those who are marginalized, who are not as well connected, and be the heart and hands that reach them.”
Father Mike Biewend, pastor of The Madeleine, and fellow parishioners immediately championed the outreach effort.
“I was 100% supportive of the idea,” said Biewend. “Seniors are having a rough time, and then this angel from the parish falls out of the sky with care and assistance.”
Scharle said Madeleine parishioner Rich Hammons, who oversees the parish website, worked nights and weekends to get the website up and running. “His heart is as big as the universe, and he arranged the content so thoughtfully, making sure it was super user-friendly to our older community.”
The first day the website was live it had 1,100 hits, and Scharle received 150 emails. She quickly scaled up their efforts and created a toolkit that outlines the program so groups can implement all or some of the ideas.
Staff at the Oregon Health Authority were so impressed with the model they’ve distributed the toolkit to the state’s 1,800 faith-based communities.
Scharle and parish volunteers are partnering with a growing number of entities, including Store to Door, a Portland charity that provides groceries to 600 older community members and those with disabilities. Using their toolkit, the charity was able to begin its own vaccine outreach program in a mere 48 hours.
The Madeleine team is working with the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management on a proposal to deploy the emergency relief teams usually called upon for earthquakes, ice storms and wildfires to help the marginalized access the vaccine.
Scharle also led a webinar Feb. 25 to introduce parishes in the Archdiocese of Portland to the toolkit and is working on a Spanish-language version of the material.
“It’s a race between the variants and the vaccine,” Scharle said. “The more people we can get though a vaccination center on a given day, the closer we are to beating the new variants to the punch.”
Melissa Leavitt hopes to use the toolkit at her parish, St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Southwest Portland.
Getting information and help from a faith community can be reassuring to seniors wary of the vaccine, said Leavitt. “It’s all about who we trust and get our information from; if your source and support is a church group you’ve chosen to belong to, that makes you more comfortable.”
Dr. Paul Cieslak is a senior health adviser for the Oregon Health Authority’s COVID-19 response and a member of St. Rose Parish in Northeast Portland. He said the outreach based at The Madeline embodies two central concepts of Catholic social teaching — subsidiarity and solidarity.
Solidarity in light of the pandemic “means we protect each other from disease with social distancing, wearing masks and following other health stipulations,” Cieslak said. “Getting vaccinated and helping others receive them — those also show solidarity with other human beings.”
For vaccine scheduling, local help is often more effective, said Cieslak. “If you can turn to one of your neighbors or a fellow churchgoer, that’s generally better than approaching the state government.”
There are 33 local public health authorities in Oregon, and they are doing their best to reach people in their jurisdictions, he said. “But members of a faith community in a church or synagogue or mosque frequently have much closer contact with people than a government entity,” and thus are more adept aids.
As for the concept of subsidiarity, he explained, it means “if something can be done locally, it should be done locally.”
Scott is special projects reporter at the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland.