Vaccine Freshm-angel

Parker Freshman Benjamin Kagan Goes Viral for Vaccine Help

Benjamin+Kagan+has+helped+hundreds+of+people+receive+their+COVID-19+vaccination.+Photo+courtesy+of+Benjamin+Kagan.

Benjamin Kagan

Benjamin Kagan has helped hundreds of people receive their COVID-19 vaccination. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Kagan.

By Jacob Boxerman and Tess Wayland

Like most Parker freshmen, Benjamin Kagan juggles a crowded Assignment Center, busy new schedule, and online club life. But before he can study for his biology test, he has to manage an over 50-person team, a multi-tabbed spreadsheet, and dozens of COVID-19 vaccine requests from some of Chicago’s most vulnerable citizens.
Kagan is the founder of Chicago Vaccine Angels, a volunteer group working to schedule first dose vaccine appointments in an unfriendly and unforgiving scheduling system.
While competing with over 66,000 Floridians on Eventbrite to get his elderly grandparents their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Kagan had one crucial takeaway—for eligible people like his grandfather, who doesn’t even have a cellphone, this system was nearly impossible to navigate.
After Parker alumni Charlie De Mar ‘08 inspired Kagan to watch his 6 p.m. report after a Parker Career Week event, Kagan happened to see a segment on the Chicago Vaccine Hunters Facebook group, to which he began to share the tips and tricks he had learned while making vaccine appointments.
Following private pleas for his help on the larger Facebook group, Kagan created his own group chat and built a team of what is now over 60 volunteers and growing.
Requests to the Angels flow in through a Google Form and are managed on a spreadsheet which aggregates the requester’s submitted information, including age, address, contact information, and vaccine eligibility, such as occupation or underlying medical condition.

It feels incredible to be able to single-handedly eliminate these people’s problems they’ve been having for over a year now … To be able to send them to hug their grandkid and to go back to their normal lives.”

— Benjamin Kagan

Many submissions have a bigger story beyond the information on their forms —Kagan has worked with a diverse group of people, from war veterans to cancer survivors to frontline workers. “It feels incredible to be able to single-handedly eliminate these people’s problems they’ve been having for over a year now, “ Kagan said. “To be able to send them to hug their grandkid and to go back to their normal lives.”
His story has received national attention and resonated with many, both locally and nationally, which Kagan attributes in part to his age and part to the novelty of his actions. “This self drive, it’s so classically Parker,” Kagan said. “It’s shocking to people that there’s a 15-year-old that’s out there doing this.”
Though Kagan hasn’t asked for an extension or turned work in late to date, he is kept busy not just by schoolwork and dozens of vaccine requests a day, but by media interviews. After a Zoom interview with CBS Chicago in late February, Kagan’s story began to garner national attention and praise.
Kagan has been featured both in print and on television for the “Chicago Tribune,” “The Washington Post,” “CBS Chicago,” “ABC Chicago,” “The Times of Israel,” “Inside Edition,” “NBC Chicago,” “Good Morning America,” “People,” “Fox,” “Today,” “MSNBC,” “WGN,” and more, with mentions on Twitter from Senator Dick Durbin and the famous “Roomrater” account.
The recognition Kagan received has helped more eligible people discover and get help from the group, with doctors Kagan has never been in contact with sending the Angels’ form to patients as a resource for finding a vaccine.
Kagan spends many of his nights booking vaccination appointments, communicating with volunteers in his group, and making calls with various contacts to expand his network of vaccine providers, volunteers, and supporters.
The Angels have been moving towards partnerships with medical providers to streamline the appointment process. One of Kagan’s first medical partners was Innovative Express Care, a private health clinic that vaccinated almost all Parker’s faculty in February. The two partnered for three events on March 7, 15, and 21.
As of March 23, Innovative Express Care is no longer receiving vaccine doses from the City of Chicago after allegedly “misallocating” over 6,000 doses marked for Chicago Public School teachers through a $5 million contract with the city.
Now that Innovative cannot supply doses, Kagan is now connected with other providers in Chicago such as Insight Healthcare, Instavaxx, and a doctor at Advocate Health. Direct access to providers’ vaccination appointment databases both simplifies the registration process for Kagan and his volunteers and helps to vaccinate more people.
“It’s been much more beneficial to go through and organize these mass vaccination events where I can book 100 people,” Kagan said. “When we’re organizing these mass vaccination events, it makes it much easier on us to not be hunting down these appointments.”
After reading about Kagan in the “Chicago Tribune,” Dr. Rahul Khare MD, owner of Innovative Express Care, connected with Kagan’s Angels via a post to the larger Facebook page. “I actually put a post on there about, ‘Hey, guys, here’s a little bit of the other side of what you guys are dealing with,’” Khare said. “Which got a tremendous amount of views and clicks and questions.”
Khare is passionate about prioritizing vaccinating people and communities in need, which he expressed to Kagan. He offered 150 vaccination spots a week to the Angels, with a stipulation: “I want 65 and older, and I want the Black and brown community, Black and brown people to get it,” Khare said. “And most importantly, in certain zip codes … Based on science, those are the ones that are higher risk.”
Khare noted especially the difficulty with which elderly populations have in obtaining vaccination appointments through online portals such as the one Innovative Express Care utilizes.

It’s a selfless act that fills a huge need … And then when you talk to him, he’s a really nice guy.”

— Dr. Rahul Khare

Khare also admired the work Kagan has been doing to help people find COVID-19 vaccinations. “It’s a selfless act that fills a huge need,” Khare said. “And then when you talk to him, he’s a really nice guy.”

Moving forward, Kagan plans to expand his vaccination efforts in the way he expanded working with Innovative Express Care—partnering directly with local organizations and care providers.
“We’re always trying to forge these partnerships with community organizations. But, everything’s a work-in-progress,” Kagan said. “Forging big partnerships takes time.”
As of now Kagan has partnered with Chicago non-profit “My Block, My Hood, My City,” a community organization “supporting under-resourced communities,” according to their website, to provide vaccinations to people in heavily affected communities.
Kagan hopes that by working with organizations such as My Block, My Hood, My City, and with hospitals, his group can more quickly and easily provide vaccination appointments to a greater number of people. “We’re always looking to expand these partnerships, because, to a certain extent, we can’t just go in and continue going, one appointment, one appointment, one appointment.”
Until then, the Chicago Vaccine Angels will continue to book single appointments as necessary.
Parker senior Alex Schapiro got vaccinated in phase 1b as a camp counselor. Schapiro joined Kagan’s team of volunteers to make sure those who most needed the vaccine could also get access. “I felt bad because I’m not totally high risk,” Schapiro said. “I don’t want to steal from people so I’m like, ‘oh, let me reach out to Ben.’”
According to Schapiro, the team of volunteers is supportive and focused on helping each other, which Schapiro attributes in part to Kagan’s leadership. “Most of the job is interacting with people way older than him,” Schapiro said. “I think it’s super admirable for him to be able to do that as a 14-year-old kid.”
Both Schapiro and Kagan have helped eligible Parker community members get vaccinated through the Vaccine Angels program. “Teachers have reached out to me saying, ‘my mother’s 85 years old, and she’s unvaccinated—go,’” Kagan said. “How is this person not vaccinated? How has someone not already gone and helped you?”
An anonymous Parker senior girl was able to get vaccinated with Kagan’s assistance as a 1B camp counselor, like Schapiro and many other Parker seniors. “I worked with Benjamin Kagan who helped me look for appointments and helped me understand my eligibility within the Chicago system,” she said via email. “I didn’t know I was eligible until Benjamin told me I could get a Pfizer. Originally it was hard because I am not 18 yet.”
The senior looks forward to the expansion to 1C on March 29. “We are lucky at Parker that so many of our students are so well informed about the vaccination system and are able to help walk others through the process,” she said. “We have so many great resources in the building, teachers and peers, who are helping us navigate the system.”
Kagan himself is not eligible to be vaccinated.“Personally, if I was over 16, I know the tricks to camping out at vaccine sites, and I probably would have been vaccinated,” Kagan said.
Throughout the vaccine rollout in Illinois, Kagan has believed that if a 15-year-old is doing the government’s job, it’s a failure of leadership. Kagan agrees that Parker taught him how to take action in times of crisis like these. “I saw this thing that was wrong,” Kagan said. “I knew that I had to speak up about it, and so I did, and Parker has played a role in that.”
While Schapiro believes Kagan is acting as a ‘global citizen’ in part because of Parker values, it’s also unique to who he is as a person. “The skills he has, to be able to talk to these pharmacies, health care providers, and these elderly people definitely extends from Parker’s ability to instill that within people,” Schapiro said, “but he also has a lot of drive on his own that I don’t know if Parker can teach.”
Kagan sums up his whole experience with one word: “The key word is gratifying,” he said. “To go in there and say, ‘here’s your vaccine,’ it just feels incredible.”

This story was originally published on The Weekly on April 2, 2021.