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Meet the 'vaccine hunters' helping thousands gain access to COVID-19 vaccines

On Facebook, strangers are coming together to help others navigate websites and find appointments for the COVID-19 vaccines.
TODAY Illustration

As the coronavirus vaccine rollout continues across the country, people seeking the shot have complained about limited availability, complex websites and difficulty finding spots for those most in need.

Just weeks into the distribution process, though, strangers are coming together to help each other find valuable appointments. On Facebook, groups dedicated to helping seniors or other at-risk individuals find vaccines have garnered tens of thousands of members, and hundreds of volunteers are booking appointments, sharing information and more.

Lisa David Meyers, a long-time New York resident who moved to Florida a few years ago, said that she was inspired to make a group for the New York area after she used a similar, Florida-based page to make an appointment for her mother. She was surprised to see nothing similar existed in New York.

"I was psyched to go online and find the New York page and send it to all my friends, but there was not one, so I figured, why don't I just start it? And that's literally how it happened," Meyers explained. "It was just completely random. ... It initially started as crowdsourcing information, but then people kept asking me to make appointments for them."

Some pages help anyone eligible find a vaccine. Others specifically assist seniors. Some pages, like the one developed by a brother and sister pair in Washington, emphasize equity and include bilingual staff members who can help people who don't speak English navigate the systems.

"About a month ago ... We started noticing that the process just really wasn't clear ... and we thought that if we were having issues, there's got to be a lot of people who are having a harder time," said Steve, who asked to only be identified by his first name to keep the focus on their efforts with the group. "We now have a 50-volunteer team, with 15 languages represented, including American Sign Language. ... We're looking to ensure that there's equitable access, especially for high-risk individuals."

Each group leader said that the work is essentially a full-time job. Steve and Sharla, who operate the Washington page, said that they're working most hours of the day and have accepted that they'll be doing so until the process is better.

Sharon Kates, who helps moderate a New Jersey page, said the work takes up most of her day.

"The nice thing is having 28,000 eyeballs on openings," said Steve. "People come to our group expecting that we're going to deliver this amazing information, and sometimes we do. But the reality is, it's the reality of those 28,000 eyeballs, which are better than any system out there for letting us know when something's available."

Meyers said that she wakes up to dozens of emails from people seeking appointments or thanking her for her help each day, and then spends the majority of her day moderating the page. Since vaccine appointments are released at random, groups spend lots of time monitoring different websites, but with so many people involved, it's easier to track the wide range of sites.

"We're sharing information in real time," said Meyers, who noted that she and her team of 32 volunteers work from a spreadsheet of names. "If a (super-site) goes live, if one of the hospitals goes live, if someone's got something on RiteAid, we send each other information. We're all hands on deck, we get the appointment, and then we move on and step and repeat and start over."

Volunteers come together to build new systems

Many of the Facebook groups that are operating use Google Forms or other sites to register people who want the vaccine and collect their information. Jonathan and Jennifer Greenwald have developed Google Forms for several pages, in addition to helping people in their area of South Florida book their own vaccine appointments.

"We had to develop a method that we could build a volunteer organization around," Jonathan Greenwald told TODAY. "And how to manage what happens when 4,000 people sign up in three or four days, and how to manage booking them appointments. We had to figure out what criteria we needed to include."

Amy Heller runs national nonprofit the W Girls, an organization dedicated to empowering women and children in underserved communities. Less than two weeks ago, she joined a New Jersey Facebook page dedicated to helping people find vaccines, and reached out to the group leaders to see how she could help organize volunteers.

"I asked 'Is there a way to streamline (the vaccine appointment) process?'" Heller said. "I basically just pulled everybody together, organizing them into groups. For something that was created nine days ago, it's moving unbelievably well. As of (Wednesday), we have already booked 1,300 appointments ... We've effectively built a shell of a call center."

Pages emphasize avoiding scams, misinformation

While the Facebook groups have been helpful in connecting tech-savvy volunteers to those in need of vaccine appointments, several group leaders say that they're wary of vaccine-related scams. Renae Shepherd, who operates a group serving the Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania, said that to avoid any risk of identity theft, her group only shares information about where people can find appointments rather than booking them.

"The challenge that we have found is that with sharing sensitive information required to schedule an appointment, there's a lot of risk involved, and I just don't feel comfortable encouraging people to share that information with people they don't even know," Shepherd said. "When people aren't used to using a computer and they're desperate, you're pretty much delivering that kind of audience to people who are going to want to take advantage of it."

Brittany Cohen, who operates the New Jersey group with her sister Brandi, says that her group helps people make appointments, but also provides information about staying safe online.

"We tell people not to give information about yourself that you feel uncomfortable giving ... Don't give them anything that they can't find in a simple Google search," Cohen said. "Never give Social Security numbers, bank information, insurance. You can give all of that information (at the vaccine appointment). We have warnings all over the page just to make sure that people don't get themselves in a bad situation."

'It's super rewarding'

In some groups, people do more than just book appointments: Brad Johnson, who operates a page that helps people in New Orleans find vaccines, said that one member of the group was crowdsourcing funds to support medical transportation for people who live in rural Mississippi to get them to mass vaccination sites. Other groups have seen individuals provide rides or other transportation to people who can't travel by themselves.

That effort pays off: While none of the group operators interviewed know exactly how many people have been able to find a vaccine due to their pages, some estimated that hundreds or even thousands of people had been assisted by the information available. Some individual volunteers have booked more than 100 appointments.

"It's super rewarding," said Shepherd. "There are days where it gets frustrating, you see people that really need access that can't get access. It's really hard, day in and day out. And then you get a message from a young girl who sent me a picture of her and her grandmother and told me how her grandmother cried when she got an appointment, because grandma had been isolated for a year. ... That's the kind of stuff that makes it worth it. That's rewarding. That's what it's all about."