Coronavirus crisis'We're just regular teenagers'

Tech troubles? No problem! US youth help seniors navigate COVID challenges

American members of the digital generation use their native skills to assist older people to schedule vaccinations, access information, and feel less lonely during the pandemic

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Benjamin Kagan (Courtesy)
    Benjamin Kagan (Courtesy)
  • Josh Ternyak coding his 'Covid Invaders' game. (Courtesy)
    Josh Ternyak coding his 'Covid Invaders' game. (Courtesy)
  • A screenshot of Josh Ternyak's 'Covid Invaders' computer game (screenshot)
    A screenshot of Josh Ternyak's 'Covid Invaders' computer game (screenshot)
  • Teen computer wiz Avi Schiffmann in March 2020 (David Schiffmann)
    Teen computer wiz Avi Schiffmann in March 2020 (David Schiffmann)

George Washington University student Noah Bennett has devoted days and nights to scheduling hundreds of COVID vaccination appointments for elderly residents of DC, Virginia and Maryland.

Appointments for the chaotic vaccine rollout in the United States must be snagged online, and for the technologically challenged, the process is nearly impossible. Without the help of 22-year-old Bennet and other local students, many eligible people could miss out on getting the jab.

“We’ll do it for as long as we need to,” said Bennett, a philosophy major graduating this spring.

Bennett is a leading participant in the Vaccine Sign-Up Support Project, a partnership of GW Hillel and the Edlavitch DCJCC. He has taken on the job of matching hundreds of volunteers with senior citizens who ask for scheduling assistance. When he makes a match, he emails the appropriate volunteer, asking them to contact the senior within 48 hours, and start searching online for an appointment.

Vaccination appointment scheduling is only one of many ways in which high school and college students have been using their tech skills to support others during the pandemic. They’ve done everything from coaching seniors on how to use Zoom to developing COVID-related computer games to building informational websites checked regularly by millions around the world.

The Times of Israel reached out to members of the digital generation to check out a sample of special COVID-driven projects.

Whizz kid tracks early COVID spread

Avi Schiffmann presenting at La Ciudad de las Ideas conference in Mexico (Courtesy)

Probably the first tech-savvy teen recognized for a Covid-related initiative was Seattle’s Avi Schiffmann. Over a year ago, Schiffmann began using web scraping technology to create his website to track the spread of the novel coronavirus around the world. He learned how to code from watching YouTube videos and participating in online chat rooms.

“These days it is a lot easier to get information on the virus, but my site is still one of the top COVID trackers… My site has been used by countless scientists and foreign governments. Regular families like to use it to check on how the countries their family members are living in are doing all from one place,” Schiffmann told The Times of Israel.

Schiffmann, who is now 18 and a high school senior, noted that today his site displays much more data and has a more user-friendly interface. Fortunately, he is now able to track not only illness and death, but also  vaccination statistics.

“I have a lot more data sources overall. There are over 250 unique web scrapers now, which is extremely hard to maintain… It has been super-stressful and a lot of pressure, especially from all the user traffic,” he said.

When The Times of Israel interviewed Schiffmann in March 2020, his website had been visited by 12 million people since its launch in late December 2019. A year later, Schiffmann reported that it has had hundreds of millions of visitors to date, and in late April it had a peak of 30 million in a single day. Even with traffic slowing down lately, the site is still averaging a couple hundred thousand visitors daily.

March 17, 2021 screenshot of Avi Schiffmann’s COVID tracker website (Screenshot)

Schiffmann’s coding skills and unyielding dedication garnered him international attention and appreciation. The highlight of last year was being named the 2020 Webby Awards Person of the Year. The recognition was presented to him by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the president.

The teen was also invited to speak in front of thousand of people at a conference in Mexico, and to participate in a fundraising event with tech titans such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Schiffmann, however, said that he had the most fun speaking about coding via video conference with school classes in different countries.

Despite the demands of keeping his COVID website optimized, Schiffmann found time to create two additional websites related to other key events of 2020. WhoTo.Vote aggregated candidates’ positions, and 2020Protests provided a centralized source for protests happening in every state, curfew times, petitions and educational resources.

“I worked with students online from all over the world, troubleshooting everything from different time zones to language barriers, cultural norms, and personalities,” Schiffmann said.

Help making that vital appointment

Lily(left) and Ava Weinstein holding samples of the flyers they passed out.(Courtesy)

George Washington University’s Bennett had past experience working with “complicated and annoying data” from his time with the Florida Democratic Party’s voter protection team.

But that hasn’t been the case with others helping to sign up seniors for their shots. For the younger generation, learning new tech tricks along the way is simply second nature.

“We’re just regular teenagers,” said Lily Weinstein, a 15-year-old 9th grader from Roslyn, New York, who has been working with her sister Ava to schedule appointments.

“I wouldn’t say we are especially tech-savvy. We’re just on our phones all day,” observed Ava, who is 16 and in 10th grade.

The two discovered that getting the job done is mainly a matter of patience and perseverance.

I wouldn’t say we are especially tech-savvy. We’re just on our phones all day

The sisters realized just how hard it is for seniors to navigate the disjointed online system when their octogenarian grandparents (who have no home computer) were sent in circles when they tried to secure appointments in early January.

The girls came to the rescue, and then let word be known in their grandparents’ building that they could help others. They handed out 30 flyers, and before they had even left the apartment complex, their phone was ringing with requests for assistance.

Chicago high school freshman Benjamin Kagan (Courtesy)

By trial and error, they quickly learned which state, medical clinic and pharmacy websites to scour. They also figured out exactly what information they needed to collect from seniors to efficiently lock in appointments.

They’ve secured over 100 appointments, but have a waiting list of more than 500 individuals who are still searching. Fortunately they have help from teens associated with the local Chabad and JCC who have joined the effort.

Chicago high school freshman Benjamin Kagan is running an even larger volunteer operation, which has snagged well over 1,000 appointments — 215 of which he scheduled himself.

Like the Weinstein sisters, Kagan, 15, was inspired to help seniors get  vaccinations after helping his grandparents in Florida get theirs in January.

George Washington University philosophy student Noah Bennett (Courtesy)

He joined the 50,000 member-strong Chicago Vaccine Hunters Facebook group, and got good tips from its members. Soon after, he started a sub-group, called Chicago Vaccine Angels. Kagan runs the group of more than 50 volunteers, all of whom are adults — except for him.

“We are so known that we haven’t had to advertise. We’re swamped with requests,” Kagan said.

He devised a system that funnels information so that he doesn’t get too overwhelmed. Still, he is spending around six hours a day on the project, and is often up at midnight, when many appointment slots are released.

According to Kagan, staff at some clinics have gotten to know him and have called him to let him know about extra available doses, or unexpected open appointments.

I went to a local clinic to meet some of the people I helped. They were ecstatic and so grateful

“I went to a local clinic to meet some of the people I helped. They were ecstatic and so grateful,” Kagan said.

Bennett said he is moved by the grateful emails he receives from seniors, but is at the same time dismayed that it is up to students to do what the federal and state governments have failed at, despite having had a year to plan.

“We can almost make flying cars, but we can’t build a system to schedule vaccines to save people’s lives,” lamented Ava Weinstein.

Striving for human connection, virtually

Carson Fruman volunteers with the Tech-Knowledge Hub in Baltimore. (Courtesy)

Carson Fruman discovered that seniors may have computers, but they often need assistance with using them.

A volunteer with the Tech-Knowledge Hub at the Edward A. Myerberg Center in Baltimore, Fruman, 17, has been coaching seniors over Zoom to overcome their tech challenges.

“A lot of seniors have trouble with the internet, specifically their email. They also have trouble organizing everything on their desktop, like their folders and documents,” he said.

Fruman told The Times of Israel that the interaction — albeit remote —  with the seniors is important in countering the isolation imposed by the pandemic.

“A lot of seniors can get lonely, so I also talk to them about their day and any other topics they choose to talk about. They appreciate my help and having someone to talk to,” he said.

Noa Geralnik, a 10th grader at Beren Academy in Houston, misses her 93-year-old buddy Rae Sampson. The two used to meet regularly in-person as part of the Better Together intergenerational program.

Noa Geralnik (right) with her Better Together buddy Rae Sampson (Courtesy)

During the pandemic, Geralnik has used “buddy boxes” to stay in touch with Sampson. Instead of doing activities together in person, Geralnik  sends Sampson a box containing a letter, materials for a project, and a finished example. The box also includes a video greeting card (with an LCD screen built in) onto which Geralnik uploads a video of herself speaking to Sampson and demonstrating how to do the project.

“Rae just has to open the card and the video starts playing,” Geralnik explained.

Josh Ternyak of Plymouth, Minnesota, used his coding talents to develop a free video game for people of all ages to play and enjoy. Encouraged by his friend Roman Peysakhovich, Ternyak modeled “Covid Invaders,” on the classic “Space Invaders.” Only here, you have to shoot vaccine from a syringe at quickly moving coronaviruses.

Josh Ternyak coding his ‘Covid Invaders’ game. (Courtesy)

Ternyak, 16, had experience building websites, but this was his first attempt at a video game.

“I was so glad it went viral. It had 100 users on the first day I launched it in mid-December, and within two weeks it had as many as 1,000 users a day,” he said.

Ternyak sees the game as something “cool and fun” to do. It’s a way to get your frustration out at the virus while sitting in front of your computer, perhaps during a lockdown.

“And it celebrates that we have a vaccine so quickly. It didn’t happen like that with the [Spanish flu] pandemic 100 years ago,” Ternyak said.

A screenshot of Josh Ternyak’s ‘Covid Invaders’ computer game (screenshot)
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