Waking up at the crack of dawn. Dialing the same busy phone line for hours on end. Clicking through confusing prompts on website after website. With demand far outstripping supply, the frenzied search for a COVID vaccine appointment can be overwhelming, even for eligible people in high-priority, high-risk groups, such as older adults.
“It’s been a nightmare,” says Caroline Cooper, a 78-year-old attorney in Chevy Chase, Md., who is familiar with computers and bureaucracies and still could not find herself a shot. “It’s very stressful, because you don’t know if you’ll ever get the vaccine.” Appointment systems are incredibly convoluted, and vaccine seekers can’t easily tell whether they should contact a state, a city, a county, a local hospital or drugstore, all of which can post new appointments at all hours of the day and night, often with different criteria and procedures for signing up.
Now, grassroots volunteer efforts are springing up across the country to help seniors get their shots. In Louisville, Ky., cousins Jacqueline Teague, 16, and Amelie Beck, 14, watched their grandparents’ frustration build as they tried to sign up for a vaccine. The cousins stepped in to help, succeeded, and did not stop with family. The girls started to assist their grandparents’ friends and, suspecting that others in the community also needed a hand, went even further. The girls made a flyer and a Facebook page offering their services, dubbed it VaxConnectKY, and were immediately flooded with e-mails and phone calls. “People are really frustrated, and sometimes we’re their last resort to get the vaccine,” says Beck. “It’s just a lot of desperation and helplessness.”
The cousins work as tech support, walking seniors through the confusing verification processes and authentication steps required to schedule an appointment. Amidst their own schoolwork and extracurricular activities, Teague and Beck have aided over 700 seniors. When the girls get too busy, they rope in their teen siblings, whom they trained to field requests. They say they plan to keep going until they have helped everyone who has asked. “We also hope the process of getting vaccines becomes simpler, and that people won’t even need us anymore,” says Teague.
Unfortunately, simpler is not on the immediate horizon. The process seems to be getting more challenging as governments expand priority groups, upping competition for limited doses. Maria Peterson, a high school Spanish teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, was excited to get vaccinated within days of learning that educators had become eligible. But she grew concerned as she watched some of her colleagues try and fail. “If teachers, who are tech-savvy and doing online learning, can’t find appointments, just imagine what the seniors must be going through,” says Peterson. She and seven other teachers banded together to offer some helping hands.
The group, which calls itself the Vaccine Hunters or Las Caza Vacunas in Spanish, created pages and posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as a Google Voice phone number that seniors can turn to for aid. In between classes and for hours each day, the group members scroll through 30 vaccine appointment websites and fill as many open slots as they can with names they have collected. As of mid-February, their efforts had scored appointments for more than 420 seniors, including Caroline Cooper. But their list has grown so long that the group has now paused new requests until they can work through the backlog. They recommend seniors use a spreadsheet they created, which contains all the county, state and private COVID vaccination sites as well as tips for booking an appointment themselves.
In other states, volunteers are crowdsourcing information on ways to find a vaccine. When California expanded its vaccine eligibility requirements to include people 65 and older, a software developer named Patrick McKenzie tweeted that someone should come up with a way to catalog all the sites with available vaccines. Manish Goregaokar, a Google employee in Berkeley, thought that was an excellent idea. “There aren’t that many opportunities where you don’t need to be special to help,” he says. “You don’t need to have contacts with the government or tons of money; you can just help with skills that a lot of people have and come together to make something better.”
He and 200 other volunteers built a website called VaccinateCA.com that tracks the availability of vaccines across the Golden State. Every day, volunteers calls a list of hospitals, pharmacies and other locations and publishes appointments on the site as soon as they find them. The site currently gets tens of thousands of visits a day, according to Goregaokar. “This may be the most impactful thing I ever do,” says Goregaokar. “I’ve done other volunteering, but this directly translates to lives saved. It’s humbling and scary to be in that position.”
Though these volunteer efforts began with the simple goal of getting more shots into seniors’ arms, their ground-level view also has allowed them to identify problems with registration systems that public health officials seem to have missed. For example, in Maryland, Peterson and the other three bilingual Vaccine Hunters discovered significant grammatical errors in the Spanish translation of the state vaccine appointment form, mistakes that made the instructions baffling. They told Kori Boone, the assistant secretary to the Department of Health, and the translation was promptly corrected. On the other side of the country, Goregaokar says that VaccinateCA volunteers discovered that a Rite Aid pharmacy with doses available was not listed on San Bernardino County’s vaccine registration website; after they alerted the pharmacy, it and nine additional Rite Aid locations were added online.
In Kentucky, teens Teague and Beck drew from their experience to send a letter to Governor Andy Beshear’s office that outlined several steps to simplify vaccine scheduling, such as creating a map hyperlinked to all available vaccine sites. The governor’s staff passed those recommendations to the state Department for Public Health. While the teens wait to see if the state will act on any of their ideas, they are still working their screens, helping older people regain a sense of normalcy, one appointment at a time. “The pandemic has felt like such a stagnant event that we can’t do anything about,” says Beck, “so it’s definitely satisfying for us to know that we’re helping put an end to it.”