It was a day or two before the calls, emails, and texts came in from family and friends asking Melinda McCann the same frantic question.
“How did you get your parents appointments?”
Despite national confusion, mixed messages, and scarcity, McCann, 39, had managed to lock in a date for her Chester County parents, both cancer survivors in their 70s, to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Then she scheduled shots for her in-laws and older family and friends. She hasn’t stopped since. In just two weeks, the Exton woman, her sister, Mary Brady, and cousin, Alicia Karr, have established a network of volunteers helping dozens in the area, most of them strangers, get vaccinated.
Virginia Schenk, a 61-year-old cancer survivor and COPD sufferer in Broomall, had despaired of finding an appointment until connecting with the women.
They got her an appointment for March 2 “within almost an hour,” she said, “which was amazing to me because I had been trying for quite a few days.“
McCann’s primary care doctor, Christine Meyer, has helped connect the three women with people seeking shots through PA COVID Vaccine Match Maker, a vaccine information Facebook group Meyer started Tuesday in frustration over her stymied efforts to find appointments for her patients. The messages on the Facebook group, which gained more than 3,000 followers within days, express desperation and anxiety sown by the chaotic vaccination process.
Across the region, physicians and pharmacists have wait lists in some cases thousands of names long, and no clear sense of when those people will get shots. Meyer applied to administer the vaccine at her Chester County internal medicine practice, she said, and after dozens of phone calls and emails with the state has only been told her application is under review.
“It’s been a colossal nightmare,” Meyer said. “Every day we get hundreds of phone calls, emails, asking, ‘I need help finding a vaccine.’ ”
Scramble for doses
Many of those eligible for vaccination, the region’s seniors, are among the least likely to be tech savvy.
“People who don’t know how to use these tech resources,” McCann said, “that’s who we’re really trying to help.”
The search for vaccine can hinge on whether a senior has a relative or friend with the time and know-how to navigate digital sign ups.
“You can’t have the vaccine distribution be a race between elderly people typing and younger people typing,” said Jeremy Novich, a clinical psychologist in New York City who has begun a group to help people navigate the technology to get appointments. “That’s not a race. That’s just cruel.”
Vaccine supplies everywhere are limited, and chasing down doses through national pharmacy chains can be an exercise in frustration.
“You start putting in the information and as soon as you hit submit you take a deep breath because someone else is probably putting information in at the same time,” Schenk said. “It’s who can type the fastest.”
As of Friday afternoon, McCann and her group had found appointments for more than 50 people, and have a wait list of 75, including New Jersey residents. They have temporarily stopped accepting new requests to focus on people already waiting.
On the hunt
McCann’s group catalogued the names, ages, and contact information of people eligible for vaccination into a spreadsheet. From there, success largely depends on vigilance and persistence. McCann, a mother of two who owns an architecture and design firm with her cousin Karr, said she and her other volunteers spend two to three hours a day refreshing the websites of vaccine providers and entering the zip codes of the people seeking appointments as they work, do chores, or watch TV. They fail more often than they succeed, McCann said.
“You just have to keep trying,” she said. “It’s a very frustrating process.”
It’s unpredictable when vaccination slots will open up, and they fill quickly, so McCann and her family text throughout the day to discuss their progress. They hustle to their computers when one discovers a location with vaccine doses available.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to it and nobody understands it,” she said.
Wednesday, Meyer posted on her Facebook group that Giant Food Stores would start carrying vaccine doses, prompting a roller coaster of messages as people reported making appointments, while others found no openings. McCann’s group is among those who identify with the hashtag, #finders, to help those using the hashtag, #seekers.
“It, like, kind of reminds me of back in the day before you could buy concert tickets on the internet,” she said. “It’s such a rush to be able to secure the appointment.”
Their passion for the hunt is infectious. McCann’s mother and aunt are now volunteers. Schenk is also among the seven people in McCann’s volunteer network. She has created a document with links to all the region’s vaccine registration sites so she can click through them quickly throughout the day.
“It’s a shame it has to be this way,” Schenk said, “but it’s nice how humanity has really stepped up to help people you don’t even know.”
The work, though, also drives home the vaccination process’ dysfunction.
Some of the people they register have to travel to the Lehigh Valley or near Harrisburg to get shots. It’s virtually impossible to get appointments on the Main Line, McCann said. The ad hoc nature of the Facebook page has led to other complications, such as when a well-meaning participant shared a link to a vaccination sign-up form that should not have been made public.
Those involved in finding appointments say a fair vaccination process shouldn’t rely on the efforts of random volunteers.
“People are dying,” Meyer said. “Literally, people’s lives are in the balance and that’s just not acceptable.”
McCann logged on to Rite Aid’s website to make appointments for her parents as soon as they were eligible for shots, she said. She was shocked to find about 4,000 people ahead of her. After two hours in a digital queue, she got an appointment. Her mother teared up, she remembered.
The deep sense of relief she felt then has been replicated many times over.
“It’s been very rewarding and incredible,” McCann said, “to be able to help people who have been living in fear for a year now.”
Kaiser Health News contributed to this story.