Readers asked: Could Davidson-Hiers help?
It was the first sign for the 26-year-old Tallahassee Democrat reporter that the technical and logistical problems hindering the nation’s vaccine rollout were hitting her north Florida county, too. So she started responding. She didn’t have all the answers, she told one anxious caller after another, but she would try to find out.
For the past four weeks, Davidson-Hiers has acted as an unofficial vaccine hotline for the county of 294,000, helping scores of seniors navigate a public health bureaucracy they say has left them panicked about how to get the injections that promise to end the pandemic.
From a cluttered apartment in Tallahassee, she has walked patients through the sign-up process, pressed health officials for information, and in two cases helped people fill out the online forms herself.
When she can’t offer concrete information, she listens. Often, she said, people just want someone to talk to.
“The fact is that, right now, solid information is therapeutic,” she said in an interview. “When people call me and they say, ‘I’m confused,’ I say, ‘Yeah, me too, which means you did it right. With this virus, nothing is as it seems.’ “
In a single day in late December, Davidson-Hiers said she fielded 57 phone calls from Leon County residents. Dozens more came in the days that followed.
The questions were basic at first: How do I sign up for this? Are they still taking walk-ups? Did I submit my form properly? Soon after they grew more detailed, with people wondering about their place in line or whether their second doses would be available.
Davidson-Hiers said she’s careful to tell them only what she can confirm through her reporting.
“I respond and say, ‘That’s a great question, I’ll get this in front of the health department,’ ” she said. “What people respond to best is communication, and communication can simply be ‘I don’t know.’” There’s relief in being able to say ‘I don’t know, and here’s why I don’t know.’ ”
The same type of confusion has taken hold in other communities. Vaccine-eligible patients in California, South Carolina, Oklahoma and elsewhere have complained of complicated registration forms, buggy websites or swamped phone lines. Some counties and health-care providers have turned to the ticket sales platform Eventbrite to schedule injections, raising concerns about accessibility and potential scams.
Under the Trump administration’s approach, the complex work of raising public awareness about the vaccine, booking appointments and getting shots into arms fell almost entirely to state and local health departments — agencies already strained from chronic budget cuts and staff shortages. Many have struggled to keep pace with the crush of demand. Health officials have also grappled with uncertainty about when to expect vaccine shipments from the federal government and how many vials they’ll receive, making long-term planning difficult.
The Florida Department of Health in Leon County stopped accepting vaccine appointments in mid-January, about three weeks after opening injections to people 65 and over, saying its request line was full. About 29,000 vaccine doses have been administered in the county to date, according to state statistics; a department spokeswoman in Leon County, Pamela Saulsby, said in an email that more than 6,000 doses have been administered through the local department itself.
Saulsby declined to comment on the specific concerns Davidson-Hiers has heard from readers. She noted that the department was overhauling its appointment system and was working “closely with our community partners to fulfill a large waiting list of individuals 65 years and older who have requested an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine.” The agency also recently posted a question-and-answer page seeking to clarify the process.
“We will be providing details as soon as possible,” she said, “and communicating updates to our senior community through our DOH-Leon website, social media platforms, and local media.”
For now, Leon County residents are still leaning on Davidson-Hiers.
Technically, she’s the Tallahassee Democrat’s education and families reporter, a role she took on about a year and a half ago after working her way up at the newspaper as an intern and news assistant. Until the pandemic took hold in the spring, she’d hardly written a word about public health. But like many reporters at news outlets, 2020 plunged her into coronavirus coverage.
She’d been reporting the outbreak in Leon County since last spring and wrote the initial story on the vaccine rollout, so readers knew to turn to her. Most people got her number from her Tallahassee Democrat bio page, though she said some people reached her through word of mouth.
At last count, Davidson-Hiers said she had spoken to more than 160 seniors, but she stopped keeping a running tally weeks ago. Her phone would start buzzing around 9 a.m. and wouldn’t quiet down until mid-evening. On a recent Monday, she awoke to 75 text messages.
In one memorable exchange, a reader texted looking for help for their 84-year-old mother.
“She says that you work for the Democrat and said that people who have registered to receive the COVID vaccine but have yet to get an appt. Should text/call you,” the message read. “Whatever assistance you can provide would be greatly appreciated.”
“I will call her when I am off the meeting I’m sitting in. Thank you,” Davidson-Hiers responded.
Later, after she spoke with the woman, the 84-year-old’s child wrote back: “THANKS for being a reporter during these trying times. SALUTE.”
Davidson-Hiers isn’t the only journalist who has received such requests. Seattle Times reporter Paige Cornwell said she woke up on a recent Friday to a dozen voice mails from readers asking for help with vaccine scheduling. The digital forms had created a “huge gap for those who struggle with tech,” she tweeted. Other reporters, including Anita Lee of the Biloxi Sun-Herald in Mississippi, say they’ve helped people in their community book appointments.
In the pre-pandemic era, some journalism ethicists may have balked at the idea of reporters taking such an active role in a process typically reserved for public health officials and hospital workers. But the extraordinary circumstances call for it, Davidson-Hiers said.
Her editors feel the same way.
“I’ve heard some people raise the concern that we are overstepping our bounds, and I disagree,” said Jim Rosica, the Tallahassee Democrat’s news director. “We’re a private business but we’re also a public trust.”
Rosica compared the Leon County vaccine rollout last month to a Black Friday sale gone awry. When the announcement went up, the health department’s phones were quickly overwhelmed and a line of patients outside the building stretched down the block. He said he too had paused during his workday to help an 87-year-old man schedule an appointment.
“Reporters have to file. Editors have to edit stories and get them into print. We’re not going to allow anything to deter us from our mission,” he said. “But at the same time, if you can spare five minutes — and I did, and CD has spared a lot more — to help the people that we’re supposed to be serving as the newspaper, as the public trust of the community, we should do that. We are doing that, and we’ll continue doing that as long as people come to us for help.”
The flood of help requests has been demanding for Davidson-Hiers. There were periods over the past month where she had to set alarms to remind herself to eat lunch and dinner, she said. In a recent call with a reporter she was interrupted several times to field calls and texts.
And then there are the day-to-day challenges of the pandemic that don’t go away when she signs off from work. She misses family and friends, and her newsroom, where she was surrounded by colleagues she admires. For levity, she said, she hangs out with her three-legged cat, named The Holy Horror, and occasionally makes careful trips back to her hometown outside Pensacola to visit her parents and ride her horse, a gray mare named Lilliput.
“It’s hard to, throughout this whole pandemic, be privy to people’s worst days,” Davidson-Hiers said. “But nobody forces me to get up every morning to do this. Getting these calls, as overwhelming as they are, as constant as they are, has buoyed me with so much hope because people care.”
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