Person of the Week
Barbara Oefinger Helps Neighbors Navigate COVID Vaccination Process
When she realized how confusing vaccine registration could be for some, Barbara Oefinger reached out to her neighbors to offer assistance that grew from registration help to rides to clinics. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Oefinger )
After facing challenges registering herself for the COVID-19 vaccine, Barbara Oefinger went to work helping her senior neighbors get registered and vaccinated.
Barbara, who grew up in Guilford and currently lives in the Safe Harbor community in Westbrook, quickly realized the challenge of using the online Vaccine Administration Management System (VAMS).
“It was a nightmare getting registered,” Barbara explains. “It was awful—the system is not set up with the elderly in mind, the most vulnerable population. It is not user friendly and doesn’t take into consideration that this population doesn’t have computers or smart phones.”
VAMS is a vaccine appointment scheduling system provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is used by healthcare providers to help residents schedule COVID-19 vaccine appointments, according to the CDC’s website.
“VAMS is an easy-to-use, secure, online tool to manage vaccine administration from the time the vaccine arrives at a clinic until it is administered to a recipient,” the CDC site says. “VAMS is free for public health-approved clinics, and can be used on computers, tablets, and other mobile devices.”
Barbara, a retired nurse, knew that most of her neighbors didn’t have smart phones or computers and started going door-to-door to find out if her neighbors had family that could help them. If they didn’t, she offered to help.
“I figured it wouldn’t be that hard for me to help people and I used my smart phone to set up appointments for them. My daughter encouraged me and helped me set up an email account so I could register people,” Barbara says. “The first ones I helped with took hours—it was frustrating. There are no back arrows so if you need to fix something you have to go all the way out and back in again.
“Now, I’ve done it so many times, I have all the pages memorized and have even walked people through it over the phone,” she adds.
After getting her neighbors registered, Barbara offered to drive those who couldn’t drive or didn’t have anyone who could take them to their scheduled appointment. Although the process of getting the actual vaccine was well-organized at both the Old Saybrook and Rentschler Field in East Hartford vaccine clinic locations, she said, there were a couple hiccups along the way.
Old Saybrook, at one point, ran out of vaccines and Barbara had to drive people, instead, nearly an hour away to Rentschler Field. Getting to Rentschler Field itself was a bit of a challenge as the GPS kept getting her lost and directing her to the wrong side of the clinic. One time, they even had to wait an hour and a half in the car before getting in to the site due to the number of people waiting to get vaccinated.
Barbara also followed up with her neighbors to ensure they got their first and second shots and checked in with everyone afterward to make sure they were doing well.
“I didn’t want to see any of my neighbors getting sick,” she says.
Westbrook Senior Center Director Courtney Burks was delivering food to the Safe Harbor complex when she heard about how Barbara was helping her neighbors.
“Barbara took it upon herself to assist her neighbors at Safe Harbor and registered them online with VAMS. Once she was able to get them an appointment, she drove them to their vaccine clinic site. No matter the location!” Burks says. “We are lucky to have people like Barbara in our community. Her selflessness helped to take the stress away from people who lack the technology or do not have family to assist them. Her actions helped to get the most vulnerable population vaccinated in a timely manner.”
Barbara wasn’t always a nurse. She started out studying biology, but didn’t have the opportunity to complete that degree. She landed at Yale doing biological research and then worked in a doctor’s office. Wanting to “do something with her hands,” she eventually became a machinist and even worked at a post office.
“I tried a lot of different things and went back to college in the late 1980s to study nursing,” Barbara explains. “I got my R.N. from Central Florida Community College in 1995 at the age of 52 and completed my bachelor’s degree in healthcare leadership and management from National-Louis University in 2005.”
Since then, Barbara has worked in the nursing field doing everything from patient care to research to clinical trials to homecare. She continued to work in the field of oncology-hospice until a couple of years ago.
“I was going crazy [when COVID hit] because I wasn’t working and couldn’t go out. So, I got a dog. His name is Biscuit. He’s 10 years old and we go walking a couple times a day.”
In addition to Biscuit, Barbara’s other passion is gardening.
“I have a large vegetable garden where I grow all my own veggies during the summer months and I’m usually able to freeze some for the winter,” she says. “I also grow my own herbs and love to cook with different herbs and spices.”
She also knits and crochets. During her downtime when she “doesn’t have anything going on,” Barbara make hats and scarves that she donates to the community. Those things, she says, keep her really busy.