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These ‘vaccine hunters’ are chasing down appointments for people who need them most

As the United States ramps up COVID-19 vaccine production during the largest vaccination campaign in American history, millions of people are still struggling to get vaccine appointments even if they qualify.

So far, nearly 84 million U.S. adults have gotten at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. President Joe Biden said there will be enough vaccine doses for every U.S. adult by May 1, but getting people immunized takes more than manufacturing vials of vaccine.

READ MORE: 8 tips for finding a COVID-19 vaccine

To prevent the COVID-19 pandemic from infecting and killing more people, experts say far more must be done right now to help huge swathes of the country who are ready to roll up their sleeves but unable to access life-saving vaccines. For many people, especially those who are older, technological obstacles shut them out of the process and prolong their wait and risk of exposure to the virus.

Before the pandemic, one out of 10 Americans said they did not use the Internet, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report. Often, people need email addresses, stable internet access or speedy typing skills to sign for these appointments. People of color have disproportionately suffered severe outcomes and death from COVID-19 during the pandemic, and the White House COVID-19 Task Force has raised concerns that state inconsistency in collecting race and ethnicity data for vaccine recipients makes it difficult to know where needs are being met and where there is work left to do.

In recent months, an unknown number of vaccine hunters have stepped up to bridge the gap and get more people connected. Some have built websites or Facebook groups where thousands have asked for or offered help to strangers in setting up vaccine appointments — a virtual assembly line of goodwill and civic duty. Others have helped friends and family who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, hoping each appointment and vaccination brings the nation and world one step closer to normal. More than 2,200 people responded to the callout from the PBS NewsHour asking to hear from people who had become defacto vaccine ambassadors. What follows are a handful of the stories we heard.

Mark Meeks, 63: ‘You either sit idly by or you do something’

Mark Meeks, 63, serves as pastor for City Church of Sacramento in California. He joined local health leaders and politicians to start a COVID-19 vaccination outreach program and clinic in his church to improve resident access to vaccines. Photo Photo by Aniko Kiezel/Inside Publications

The community where Mark Meeks serves as a church pastor “has just been devastated” by the coronavirus. In Oak Park, California, a fifth of residents were born outside the U.S., according to the Census Bureau, and racial, social and economic inequity “is incredible,” he said. He’s seen how apprehension and access stand between people and COVID-19 vaccines.

READ MORE: COVID-19 has already cut U.S. life expectancy by a year. For Black Americans, it’s worse

On Valentine’s Day, Meeks, 63, sat next to his wife on his living room couch and watched the nightly news. After hearing headlines about the pandemic, he texted one of his city council members to ask what was being done about vaccination clinics in their ZIP code. Nothing was in the works. Within 24 hours, Meeks joined a group text chain with University of California-Davis Health Systems, local politicians and others, all driven by the same question: What can we do to improve local vaccination rates? By March 12, they opened a vaccination clinic at City Church of Sacramento, where Meeks preaches. So far, they have vaccinated 300 people.

“You see a need, and you either sit idly by or you do something,” said Meeks, a retired civil engineer. “We’re called to do something.”

COVID-19 vaccination clinic at City Church Sacramento in the Oak Park neighborhood. Photo by Edwin Garcia/UC Davis Health

Getting people vaccinated takes more than simply opening doors to a new clinic, Meeks said. Meeks said that in areas like Oak Park, basic technology, such as access to email and internet, has posed substantial barriers for many, particularly those who are older, despite the fact the community sits in the shadow of Silicon Valley.

That’s why he and his church members are going door-to-door, not only to raise awareness of their vaccine clinic but also to answer people’s questions about vaccine safety and effectiveness and to sign people up for appointments, handing them a reminder card with their name, date and time for the weekly clinic — no internet or email needed.

“We like to assume everybody has fiber-optic connection to laptops and desktops, and that’s so not the case,” he said.

Dr. Janki Shah, 31: ‘I’m doing my part to help with the pandemic’

Dr. Janki Shah dances with her father, Pradip Shah, on her wedding day. In April 2020, her father was diagnosed with COVID-19 and later died. She now helps people find vaccine appointments so their families avoid similar tragedies. Photo courtesy of Dr. Janki Shah

For Dr. Janki Shah, getting people connected to vaccines is personal, a way to help other families avoid going through what she went through.

In early April 2020, Shah’s father appeared to suffer from spring allergies.

Shah told her father, an engineer who had retired three months earlier from the New Jersey Department of Transportation, to avoid going to urgent care. Coronavirus infections were surging in New Jersey and New York City, where she served as an ear, nose and throat surgeon and fellow at Mount Sinai Memorial Hospital, and Shah, 31, had already tended to many COVID-19 patients as a frontline worker. She didn’t want her father, who had no known underlying health conditions, to catch this virus that had shut down the world and already caused so much suffering.

By April 12, Shah’s father struggled to breathe. Sherushed him to the emergency room, where a COVID-19 test confirmed his diagnosis. For almost five weeks, he was hospitalized, unconscious and alone. On May 17, he died.

Eight months later, Shah stood in line with Mount Sinai hospital staff to receive her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. She said the moment shone like a bright beam of hope after a year of agony. When Shah sat down, she wept and wondered why her father couldn’t have joined her. She knew he would have been first in line with his sleeve rolled up.

In December, Dr. Janki Shah, 31, of New York City, received her first COVID-19 vaccine dose and thought of her father, Pradip Shah, who died of the virus a few months earlier. Now, she helps people find vaccine appointments before working as a fellow at Mount Sinai hospital. Photo courtesy of Dr. Janki Shah

“I was sort of a wreck,” she said.

As the weeks went by, older family members and friends asked how they could get vaccinated. By mid-February, Shah said she was logging onto her computer to find vaccination appointments for loved ones — her husband’s grandparents and then her own grandmother — before reporting to work at 6:30 a.m., or after returning home at 8 p.m.

She offered to help friends of loved ones, and then joined Facebook groups of thousands of volunteers who hunt down vaccine appointments for others. She learned when big box stores open up appointment slots so she could be among the first to enter information and snag someone a date to get vaccinated. The people she helps are older or have conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to the virus.

“It is sort of a game of fastest finger, who can get there first and knowing when appointments can be released,” she said. “It favors the younger generation.”

Each appointment she has booked gives Shah joy, she said, and dilutes the sense of helplessness that had gripped her since the rise of COVID-19. But it also reminds her of her father, who had always relied on her to help him navigate the internet. Before he died, he often called her up to help him buy plane tickets online. After his retirement, he was looking forward to visiting family in India. Shah said she knows he would have asked for her help to get a vaccine appointment.

“It makes me feel like I’m doing my part to help with the pandemic,” she said.

Winnie Williams, 55: ‘It does feel like a game’

Freelance software developer Winnie Williams, 55, of Woodbury, Minnesota, helps moderate a Facebook group of vaccine hunters that assists people either sign up for vaccine appointments or answers their questions about the vaccines. Sometimes, she does this while gardening indoors. Photo by Marta Williams

When Winnie Williams tracks down open vaccine appointments, she sets alarms and changes time zone settings on her computer. She knows Walmart opens up a new day’s worth of slots seven days in advance every midnight. When it does, she has two computers fired up with a total of six browsers open, ready to enter people’s names, birthdates and addresses in hopes of getting them a chance to receive a life-saving vaccine.

The system is set up more like a game than one designed with people and their many different needs in mind, she said.

Williams, 55, said she is one of six moderators for a Facebook group called the Minneapolis Vaccine Hunters, which has more than 32,000 members. When people ask the group for help finding a vaccine appointment, Williams makes a list and then methodically works her way down, crossing off each name.

Mary Williams, 48, of Austin, Texas, received this text message after she found a vaccine appointment for someone she had never met. She is part of a grassroots army of people helping others overcome access issues to get vaccinated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy of Mary Williams

The people who she helps are often older or are medically vulnerable to the coronavirus, often those “who can’t navigate this,” said Williams, a freelance marketing and software developer in Woodbury, Minnesota . If she and other vaccine hunters weren’t helping them, Williams said she doesn’t know how some people would access appointments.

Multiple bottlenecks shut people out, Williams said. Website portals often require an email address, reliable Internet connection, a working computer and rapid-fire keystrokes to get a vaccine appointment before someone else snatches it or the window times out. Many pharmacies do not book over the phone, she said.

Missing even one of those pieces means many people who are qualified for appointments can’t get vaccinated, she said.

“I know that I can’t tell somebody, ‘Go to this website at midnight to book an appointment’ because it’ll be gone before they book it,” Williams said, adding: that’s not how an equitable system works.

Laura Torres, 27: ‘Nobody was prepared for this’

Laura Torres, 27, of Seguin, Texas, struggled to get her grandmother, Julia Torres, 87, an appointment to get vaccinated against COVID-19. But she didn’t give up, and has helped others find appointments when they could navigate the technology to do so on their own. Photo courtesy of Laura Torres

When Laura Torres signed up her 87-year-old grandmother for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment, she said she felt as if she was trapped in a dystopian novel.

It was early January, and Torres desperately wanted to secure for her grandmother one of 5,000 appointment slots that had just opened in her area. Local organizers used Sign-up Genius and Eventbrite to fill appointments, but Torres said the systems — which she used frequently for work — seemed overwhelmed and glitchy. The websites often stopped working. Pages repeatedly needed to reload, and Torres had to enter full name, birth date, home and email addresses and phone number as quickly as possible before someone else snatched up the appointment slot or the page timed out altogether.

“It kind of felt like the Hunger Games,” said Torres, a 27-year-old executive director for a non-profit education foundation in Seguin, Texas, nearly 40 miles east of San Antonio.

READ MORE: 5 stories about COVID-19 vaccine mistrust from Americans of color

Unlike in the dystopian novel, Torres wasn’t forced to fight for her life in an amphitheater. Still, the stakes could not have been higher. Torres’ grandmother raised her and had been diagnosed with several pre-existing health conditions that placed her at heightened risk of severe outcomes if she got sick with the virus. Eventually, Torres “got lucky,” and her grandmother received her shot in mid-January.

For many older people without a loved one to help them navigate online hurdles, the task was virtually insurmountable because many “don’t even have an email address let alone knowing how to use something like Eventbrite or Sign-up Genius,” Torres said.

For that reason, she has continued to help others. Once she had figured out the system, which she said local officials eventually revamped and improved, Torres then helped two aunts, two older cousins and is now reaching out to extended family to see who wants to get vaccinated. She offers tips to older friends on Facebook about what information to have beforehand. But Torres knows it will take more than luck to get enough people in her community, and across the country, vaccinated in order to slow down the pandemic’s spread.

While she applauded city and county officials who were tasked with rolling out the vaccines, Torres said people like her are going to have to step up to fill in the gaps because of the unprecedented nature of the mass vaccination effort and the millions of people still searching for vaccine appointments. “Nobody was prepared for this,” she said.

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