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Vaccine hunting gives me a sense of purpose

I don’t know the people I book appointments for. That doesn’t matter.

Hands on a laptop keyboard at night. Getty Images

The whole thing started with my parents. At 69 and 67, they became eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine in Pennsylvania the week of the presidential inauguration. They immediately registered with their local health department and seemed certain that they’d soon get a call. They didn’t realize that the situation in Pennsylvania at the time was a disaster — that millions of people were now eligible and there wasn’t enough supply.

I decided to try to help them, but my efforts were fruitless. It didn’t take too long to realize that trying to book vaccine appointments for my parents was basically turning into a part-time job. I devoted a few hours per day to the task — enough to make me feel like I was seriously trying, but not so much that I’d burn out right away. I’d wake before dawn, between 5 and 6 am, and work on vaccine hunting until around 7:30, when my 4-year-old daughter got up.

I had the time and energy for the task. I’d left a high-pressure job in early 2020 to work for myself, then the pandemic hit, and like so many other women, I found myself primarily taking care of my daughter, putting my career on the back burner as I struggled to come up with ways to make the days and weeks pass while keeping everyone safe and relatively sane.

At the time, there was no centralized information source or federal rollout, so it took a few days to get up to speed on what, exactly, was happening in Pennsylvania. The state’s department of health posted a digital map with thousands of points indicating hospitals or pharmacies with vaccines, marked in red (out of vaccine) or green (vaccine to offer). Unfortunately, none of the locations had any availability, regardless of color. (They’ve since changed all the dots blue, and added more colored dots?! It’s terrible.)

The more time I spent wrapping my head around the state of the rollout, the more I worried that I had missed a chance to save my parents’ lives. If only I had been paying attention to the day they had opened group 1a to people over the age of 65, I thought. I knew I was catastrophizing and wallowing in my own anxiety, but I couldn’t help myself. I was particularly concerned about my mother, who, as a public librarian, had been going into work throughout the pandemic. But I also had a weird sort of confidence about the entire situation, that I would make this happen for them through sheer force of will.

Every morning, I’d drag myself from my bed, go downstairs in the dark, turn on the coffee machine, open my laptop, and quietly get to work. I had three browsers open: Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. I had tabs open to Giant, Weis Markets, and Wegmans, as well as a few local pharmacies and health departments. On my phone, I’d open my favorite vaccine hunter Facebook group, Maryland Vaccine Hunters, where every morning people would post updates about their successes. Next to me, on the kitchen island, was a sheet of orange construction paper cribbed from my daughter’s art supply that functioned as a cheat sheet with my parents’ pertinent info (address, phone, email, DOB), a list of PA zip codes, and reminders as to when certain sites were likely to release appointments.

After about a week of research and a week of dedicated searching, I hit the jackpot and booked them appointments. As soon as I confirmed the details, I had an unexpected, immense cathartic release — just sobbing, for about five minutes. Some of the stress of the past year lifted. I hadn’t realized how worried I had been and how much I’d submerged that worry to get through my days — just as I’ve had to do with my daughter returning to in-person school.

It wasn’t long before I thought to text my elderly aunt to ask her if she had been able to get a vaccine appointment. The next day, I managed to get her one nearby. That same day, my parents got their shots. It finally felt like, after a year of the pandemic upending my life, I had a little control.

Word traveled. My aunt knew people in their 70s who, like her, couldn’t find appointments. My parents knew a woman in her late 60s who was the sole caretaker for her 98-year-old mother. There were other elderly family members in Pennsylvania and Maryland. A friend of a friend’s parents. They were all on waiting lists. I asked for their info and how far they could drive. I had notes under names like “cancer,” “diabetes,” “obesity,” “idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis” and “cardiac issues.” You didn’t need to list conditions on most of the sites in order to book an appointment, but people wanted me to know.

Every time I’d get a hit and manage to schedule someone, it was like a little pop of dopamine to my pandemic-depressed brain. I felt powerful. I also felt exhausted. By the end of a successful session, I’d be drenched in adrenaline sweat, and jittery from the black coffee I drank as I clicked and refreshed the sites for hours. I was so tired that I couldn’t stay up past 7 pm.

For some reason, the people I didn’t know were more stressful to hunt for than the people I did. Every time I managed to get someone an appointment, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to get another. I joined a second Facebook group, PA Covid Vaccine Match Maker, and submitted my interest in becoming a “Finder” for seniors. There were more than 300 “Finders” and more than 3,000 “Seekers,” and the group prioritized finding appointments for people age 75 and older. I felt comforted by the communal spirit of the groups, the positivity of the women (they all seemed to be women) searching for others and sharing tips.

I emailed strangers screengrabs of their confirmations and told them I was concerned about the weather. I hoped the 68-year-old woman and her 98-year-old mother could get to their appointments because a storm was scheduled to hit the Northeast. People asked me what to expect at the pharmacies, and I could only tell them what I’d heard secondhand. When people weren’t happy with what I found for them because it was inconvenient for whatever reason, I’d let myself feel disappointed for a little while before trying to find them something else. Meanwhile, the thank-you emails and cards I did receive — I am always going to save those.


Being a vaccine hunter means possessing an unfair advantage in a very unfair system. I have a laptop, smartphone, and reliable internet access. But for some reason, I lack confidence in my skills, no matter my success rate. You’d think the more appointments I booked, the more secure I’d feel, but it’s the opposite. Some vaccine hunters brag on Facebook about landing 50 or 100 appointments, but every time I add names to my list I worry I won’t be able to find appointments for them since the situation is so challenging, and I feel pressure to deliver quickly. I don’t want to get people’s hopes up and then disappoint them. Sometimes the appointments are hard-fought-for over hours and days, and sometimes I see a tweet from one of the vaccine appointment bot accounts I follow, and spontaneously manage to book a few in minutes.

In my first three weeks of vaccine hunting, I booked more than 20 appointments. The Maryland Vaccine Hunters Facebook group grew from a few hundred members to almost 50,000. People threw together websites that scraped pharmacy pages for new appointments. Ostensibly the sites are helpful, but I worry that they’re making it harder and harder for normal people to book appointments. Giant changed its zip code search radius from 50 miles to 10, and its site boots you out after searching too many zip codes; in response, I cleared my cache and opened an incognito browser. Rite Aid, the most stressful of the pharmacy sites I frequent, makes you enter pages of info, including an abbreviated medical history, before allowing you to confirm a time and date. In Maryland, I worked for hours to book appointments for the parents of a woman who is married to a childhood friend of my husband. Afterward, I took my daughter to the playground, shaky from adrenaline. I decided it was time to take a break for a week or two. I feel like all I think about are Covid-19 vaccines.

It’s clear that the scale of the issue exceeds what can be accomplished with Facebook groups, which are essentially mutual aid networks moderated by unpaid strangers. What’s needed are top-down, structural solutions to the vaccine distribution issues. There are people who don’t necessarily have the flexibility to take off work for an appointment, and people who can’t actually drive to get their shot, whether it’s because they are housebound or because they lack transportation. Networks of kind-hearted strangers trying to be helpful don’t actually solve the problem.

To be fair, things seem to be improving by the day. States are adding mass vaccination sites and opening phone lines so people without internet access can book appointments. Health departments are looking at vaccination data and making plans to try to reach communities that aren’t getting equal access. The federal government is working on increasing the supply. More and more adults are vaccinated every day. And while the Biden administration says there will be enough supply for all adults by May, our family will probably be in a holding pattern for another year. Vaccines aren’t approved for children yet, and young kids like ours probably won’t be vaccinated until early 2022. The exhausting, imperfect risk calculus we’ve performed for the past year whenever we leave home — this activity is probably “safe,” this one is not — won’t end for us any time soon.

I’ve taken two breaks from vaccine hunting so far, the most recent prompted by Covid-19 exposure in my daughter’s class that forced me to keep her at home, quarantined (luckily she wasn’t infected). It was hard not to think about the two remaining people on my vaccine-seeker list. I was afraid to open my Facebook app because I knew it would be filled with posts about open appointments that I wasn’t taking advantage of. After almost two weeks of unplanned hiatus, I set my alarm for 6 am on the Monday after daylight saving, thinking there might be less competition given the time change, and managed to book them both within a few hours.

Part of me wants to close all the tabs, leave all the Facebook groups, unfollow the Twitter vaccine bots, and just be done. Honestly, why do I keep doing this? It’s exhausting and frustrating. But maybe the simplest answer is that people keep asking for help, and it feels good to say yes.