- Volunteer “vaccine angels” around the country are helping high-risk people get vaccinated.
- In Chicago, one group says it has helped 1,250 elderly people and frontline workers obtain shots.
- These volunteers are navigating the online signup process for those who can’t do it themselves.
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The last time Brianna Wolin stationed herself at the phone in the hopes of finally getting through, she was trying to win a radio contest in 2005.
Her latest phone calls have higher stakes. Wolin, a graduate student at Northwestern University, has been calling county COVID-19 vaccination sites in Chicago with the goal of booking appointments for elderly residents and frontline workers.
“You feel like you’ve won the lottery when you get an appointment,” Wolin told Insider. “It’s almost absurd, because we’re talking about booking vaccines for people to save them from a global pandemic.”
While the US is doing fairly well in the global vaccine distribution race – for its own citizens, at least – local sign-up processes have been mired in complications. Phone sign-up lines have been long, and competitive online registration doesn’t favor those who are high-risk due to old age, or people who are away from their computers all day at essential jobs.
Volunteers like Wolin have joined forces to make sure high-risk vaccine seekers don’t slip through the cracks, earning them the nickname “vaccine angels.” They make up one arm of a loose patchwork of “vaccine hunters,” or people who have banded together, mostly in online groups, to find extra shots.
They started out vaccine hunting for themselves, but some wanted to help others
The vaccine angels formed a coalition within the larger Chicago Vaccine Hunters Facebook group, a community of more than 50,000 people hoping to get shots themselves or for loved ones.
Roger Naglewski created the group in early February after he came across similar online communities based in other cities. He started out by sharing tips he picked up from the NOLA Vaccine Hunters page, but soon the Chicago members were posting their own experiences and advice.
One day, Naglewski got a message from Ben Kagan, a kid he guessed to be college-aged, based on his profile picture. Kagan, who turned out to be 14, wanted to use his computer skills to book appointments for less tech-savvy Chicagoans. A couple of other members had been doing similar work, so Naglewski put them in touch.
The team grew from just a few volunteers to 55 “vaccine angels” in less than a month. They now have an official inbox for requests, and they’ve coordinated a schedule of volunteer shifts for around-the-clock coverage.
Vaccine hunting requires quick fingers and connections
After wrapping up her day job as a manager at a publishing company, Gisele Gover sits at her computer waiting for the telltale ping that means a vaccination site has updated their available appointments.
Heart pounding, she frantically exchanges messages with other volunteers and refreshes the relevant webpages, sometimes logging on as late as midnight to check for open spots.
“My husband thinks I’m nuts,” she told Insider, but the work has been a rewarding way to give back to her community during the pandemic.
Recently, she was looking for an appointment for a breast cancer survivor who was practically in tears after she struggled to find a spot. Gover was able to book her a shot, and the woman was overjoyed. “So freakin’ blessed that you crossed my path,” she wrote in a text to Gover.
Many of the tips and tricks used by vaccine hunters and angels alike require a combination of computer proficiency and insider knowledge. If a vaccine angel books an appointment for someone who later needs to cancel, the team tries to time it so a volunteer can snag the spot for another person in need.
“When you think about a senior citizen trying to do that – like, ‘okay, I’m cancelling this appointment, but I want you to have it’ – there’d be no way,” Gover said. “Really, what it’s all about is representing the people that can’t navigate this whole thing on their own.”
Booking appointments for those who can’t
Right now, the demand for vaccine angels exceeds their bandwidth. Group coordinators like Wolin are trying to balance fielding requests with training new volunteers, and every few days, they need to temporarily shut down the registration form to play catchup.
The team tries to turn around requests within three to five days, prioritizing people who qualified for the earliest phases of rollout but have struggled to book vaccine appointments themselves.
Some of the populations at the highest risk of getting severely ill or dying of COVID-19 are those who would have trouble booking an appointment, whether that’s due to lack of computer skills or Internet access, or because of busy work schedules.
In the vaccine rollout so far, Black and Latinx Americans have received fewer vaccine doses than their white counterparts, despite being two to three times more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 cases and deaths.
That inequity is not lost on the vaccine angels, who are conscious of people trying to grab vaccine appointments designated for underserved communities, despite “never stepping foot on one of those streets in their lives,” Wolin said. They also have some Spanish speakers on the team, and Wolin said they’re seeking to partner with community organizations.
All of these efforts – the outreach, the late hours at the computer, the heart-pounding thrill of booking an appointment – are fueled by unpaid volunteers.
“It almost feels like finding a group of friends that you’ve never met, because it’s all people who have the same values and priorities,” Wolin said. “We’re not getting paid a penny; we’re not looking for money. We just want to make a difference in our community.”