Making an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine can feel like a full-time job. With peak demand, there just aren’t enough shots to go around until states restock their supplies. Many eligible Americans find themselves constantly refreshing the screen, waiting for an appointment to open up. Overbooking, last-minute cancellations, and no-shows make it difficult to plan out exactly when someone will get their shot. Some seniors and those with pre-existing health conditions also have to worry about getting to and from their vaccination appointment.
To help eligible Americans get around these issues, tech-savvy volunteers are coming together to make appointments on other people’s behalf. They tend to be younger or retired with plenty of time on their hands, making them the perfect candidates to search for appointments.
Getting Her Mother the Shot
Ana Guevara is all too familiar with the challenges of scheduling a vaccine appointment. When it came time for her 85-year-old mother to get vaccinated, Ana says she just didn’t have the time to sit in front of a computer for hours searching for an opening.
That’s when her boss told her about a group of volunteers who are working to get people like her mother vaccinated. She called and three days later, her mother got her appointment. “I tell all my friends,” Guevara says. “They help, they’re very nice, and they do everything.”
The group in Los Angeles where her mother lives is called Get Out the Shot: Los Angeles. It’s made up of about 100 vetted volunteers who have helped booked over 300 appointments using the group’s scheduling system and over 4,000 appointments working individually.
Liz Schwandt, a 45-year-old early childhood program director at a preschool in Los Angeles, co-founded the group. She says she doesn’t blame the vaccine rollout or public healthcare workers for these challenges. It’s just a part of the distribution process.
“These technology barriers are real, and every shot that gets into someone is potential protection for their life and their family,” Schwandt said.
If someone needs a shot in the L.A. area, all they have to do is leave a phone message or fill out an online Google form, including their location, availability, and other scheduling information.
The volunteers enjoy helping people as well.
George Rimalower, 69, who used to run a translation company with his wife, says he spends his time responding to requests from Spanish speakers who have trouble navigating the scheduling system. “In my case, there’s no excuse for me, as a retired person with the available resources to help people, to just sit around and do nothing,” he says.
His wife, Cathi Rimalower, volunteers as well. “It’s nice to give money, and that’s always helpful. But it really feels good to give some time, too.” she said. They even get competitive about their work. So far, both have scheduled 60 appointments each.
Rhea Hoffman, a 34-year-old former teacher in the Coachella Valley who’s been helping locals get access to shots, adds, “I would like to take away the stigma that appointments are not available and that they are impossible to get. I can probably get you one within 48 hours if you qualify, and it’s not a problem — just give me a second.”
Hoffman spent most of the pandemic supervising her kids during their Zoom classes and volunteering for an online community college course for seniors. She says it took her four days to schedule appointments for her parents when the vaccines first became available. After her experience, she remembers asking her students if they were having problems reserving their spot as well. Almost everyone raised their hands.
Making the Distribution More Equitable
Volunteers are helping state and local governments and health departments fill in the gaps by reaching out to eligible patients who haven’t yet booked their shot, including disabled Americans, low-income people, and immigrant communities. Communities of color tend to have much lower vaccination rates than wealthier, white neighborhoods.
Louise McCarthy, president and CEO of the Community Clinic Association of Los Angeles County, which oversees 64 clinics throughout the area, says, “We need all hands on deck to help people get access to this vaccine. Folks are getting left behind already, and it’s projects like this that help us begin to catch up.”
Halfway across the country, a volunteer group known as the “Chicago Vaccine Angels” is doing similar work on Facebook. They have already scheduled 750 vaccination appointments for seniors and other people having trouble making reservations online, including low-income residents and members of the black community.
It all started with 14-year-old Benjamin Kagan, who first helped his grandparents book appointments in Florida. He started getting flooded with messages asking for help, so he created a database of local pharmacies and clinics that were offering the shot.
“It’s a great feeling being able to help people. I personally helped 115 people,” Kagan said.
Another volunteer, Brianna Wolin, 26, says, “After a year of caring so much about yourself and your own needs and your own safety, it feels darn good to do something for others.”