Nicole D’Abreau had spent weeks searching for a Covid-19 vaccine slot for her 62-year-old, diabetic mother when she launched a desperate attempt.
“I keep searching having a hard time. Any help or direction would be greatly appreciated,” D’Abreau, a 36-year-old Olympia, Washington, resident, wrote to the “Find a Covid shot WA” Facebook group.
Within hours, one of the group’s 50 volunteers, or “angels” as they have come to be known, contacted D’Abreau and in less than 48 hours, her mother was scheduled for a Moderna shot.
D’Abreau’s mother is one of thousands of people across the Pacific north-west state who, after qualifying for the Covid-19 vaccine and then struggling to locate appointments online, have found a shot through this Facebook page. The site is one of several that have sprung up across the United States as technical woes and online difficulties have complicated vaccination efforts.
The rapidly growing Facebook group launched a month ago and already has 29,300 members. It allows users to crowdsource information about availability of the vaccine in Washington, uses a system of hashtags to let users search and prioritizes high-risk cases. Members post constantly, with requests for help or alerts about a location with vaccine openings, so others can quickly register before the appointments disappear.
But the real magic, according to Sharla, who founded the group along with her brother Steve (They have both requested their last names not be included because of the harassing messages they have started receiving), are the group’s volunteers.
The group pairs people considered at especially high risk for Covid – which the group defines as members of the Bipoc community, people 70 years or older, individuals with limited English, and/or those with disabilities – who seek help on the site with a trained volunteer, who guides them to a vaccine appointment.
“I was speechless,” D’Abreau told the Guardian about her experience with the group. Before contacting them, she had spent mornings, lunch breaks and evenings scouring the state’s health department website for shot locations for her mother, who is black, at high risk for Covid complications and lives with D’Abreau. “I still am speechless, because it seems so surreal to have somebody find something.”
“It just helps close that equity gap where they wouldn’t be able to do it on their own,” said Sharla.
Steve had just received a message from a woman desperately looking for a vaccine for her mother, who would be starting chemo the following week. He had already tried setting her up with an appointment earlier that morning, but she missed it because she was helping her dad get a Covid-19 test before cataract surgery.
He elevated her request to what the group calls “super seekers”. “This just sort of makes everyone aware that, ‘hey, we’ve got this high-risk scenario that’s time sensitive, everybody keep an eye out and we will find her something,’” he said.
The challenges people using the group have reported are myriad. For some, it came when they tried to search the hundreds of individual vaccine locations listed on the Washington department of health website, fill out a series of forms and yet repeatedly miss out on openings because they are snatched up so quickly. Others simply struggled to understand the website or connect to the internet.
Steve, 37, and Sharla, 31, explained they don’t have any super-secret formula for finding vaccines. A lot of it comes down to simply their volunteers devoting hours a day to searching vaccination locations’ websites and alerting others when there are openings, as well as crowdsourcing information through the group’s broader community base.
Steve said: “That’s the power of 29,000 sets of eyeballs, checking these different websites.”
According to Washington’s health department, the state has distributed more than 1.2m doses, or about 83% of the doses delivered to the state’s providers and long-term care programs.
Steve said he wants to see state officials create one centralized platform to help make the distribution process easier on the community. But, referencing statistics showing the especially harmful toll the virus has had on communities of color, he would also like to see state officials start considering the Bipoc community as high risk when organizing distribution
That’s the power of 29,000 sets of eyeballs, checking these different websites
In addition to its main group, the Washington Facebook group has a virtually identical group entirely in Spanish.
Ivönne Radovich, a volunteer fluent in Spanish who helps to lead that work, said she became involved after struggling to find her own 75-year-old mother a vaccine slot. She ultimately found an appointment through the group, and now wants to help others like her mom.
“I think of the fact that my mother has so many issues with her health and the barriers – she doesn’t speak English – and how complicated just using the computer is for her, that I’m always thinking, I know there [are] so many seniors in the same situation,” said Radovich.
Bela Bhatt, a special education teacher and group volunteer fluent in Hindi and Gujarati, described a recent experience where she was able to help a woman find a vaccine for her elderly father, who speaks Gujarati, before his open-heart surgery.
Bhatt said she received a photo of him beaming as he got the shot.
“It brings tears in my eyes that this is at least something I can do for our community, for people in need,” she said.
Another person helped by the group was Kim Piira, 47, of Duvall, Washington, about 25 miles north-east of Seattle. She said she remembers searching the health department’s website for a vaccine for her 77-year-old mother, a recent breast cancer survivor who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and high blood pressure, every day for two weeks before coming across the group.
Just days later, she was sitting in her car after her daughter’s soccer game and started scrolling through the page. She spotted a new post that said, “Monroe Safeway has vaccines,” clicked on the link and, as her daughter jumped in the car, was able to grab an appointment.