For many Atlantans, the hunt is on for a Covid vaccine appointment

Like everything else in the pandemic, it’s been filled with angst. But internet crowdsourcing is helping people find the vaccine—and collective joy.

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Georgia covid-19 vaccine hunters

Photograph by Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the emotional roller-coaster of the pandemic, which brought fear, loneliness, heartbreak, and heroism, there’s a new feeling to contend with: vaccine envy. The vaccine is our ticket out of the pandemic life and into a better one, but just try getting one.

The math is daunting. About 2 million Georgians have gotten at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Five million Georgians are eligible—about two-thirds of all adults. That’s a lot of people hunting for an appointment when at most about 70,000 vaccines have been administered in a single day.

And what about the young, healthy people who aren’t yet eligible—but really want one? Governor Brian Kemp has vowed to open vaccinations to all Georgians in April—and some reports say he could make that announcement as soon as tomorrow—but until then, people who are anxious for a vaccine have been scrambling to find an excess dose that would otherwise be thrown away.

In the exurbs and beyond, vaccine appointments are going unfilled, leaving an opportunity for Atlantans who are able to travel with an option to snare one or to get unclaimed doses. As of March 7, the Georgia Department of Public Health reported that 3,870 doses had been tossed. About 1,700 of those were discarded because of concerns about possible contamination or damaged vials, but most of the rest were “not needed after prepared.”

Ashley Chen, a 42-year-old lawyer who lives in Duluth and works in technology sales, saw a news story about NOLA Vaccine Hunters, a Facebook group that formed in early January to help people get surplus shots. He thought, why not have that in Georgia? Chen and his wife, Alicia, a 46-year-old project management consultant, launched Georgia Vaccine Hunters on Facebook on February 1. It has more than 8,000 members and is growing rapidly.

The sheer number of posts—more than 1,300 in the past month—can be overwhelming. But that’s the idea behind crowdsourcing. “If we pool our collective knowledge and experience, then there’s more of a chance for all of us to get what we want,” Chen says. (A similar but unrelated resource is available on Twitter at @WhereVaccineAtlanta.)

Snagging an extra dose brings the jubilant feeling of winning the lottery, but the hunt can become all-consuming. At first, Rachel Winn, 31, was content to wait her turn as her husband, a physician, and her parents got vaccinated. Then while scrolling around Instagram, she learned about the “waste” doses that would otherwise be discarded. It was a morally sound way to be protected, support vaccination, and yet not take anything away from someone who needs it more.

Winn joined the Georgia Vaccine Hunters group, and soon she was scrolling through posts. She recalls one woman posted at 11 a.m. that she had called a Walmart in Lovejoy to get on a “waste” list and at 3 p.m. received a call to come in for a shot.

“I got excited and thought that could be me,” says Winn, a social media consultant and mom of two young children. “I got put on three or four waste lists. I kept my phone on loud. All day I was waiting for a call, and it never happened.”

Finally, Winn decided to stop the hunt and wait for the next expansion of eligibility. “I was in a better headspace mentally when I was just waiting for my time to come, rather than spending my free time calling these places and getting my hopes up,” says Winn, co-founder of a company, The Radiate Co., that is selling “I Got My Covid-19 Vaccine” buttons and stickers. (She still hopes to be able to wear one soon.)

A stay-at-home mom with 5-year-old twins has made it her mission to help eligible people on the Georgia Vaccine Hunters site find appointments. It isn’t easy. “There are just so many things to overcome. It starts to feel disheartening,” says the group member, who asked not to be identified. She created a Google doc that shows which vaccination sites refresh their appointment scheduling at midnight or at 6 or 7 a.m.

The scheduling itself is fragmented. Each retail pharmacy (Kroger, Publix, Ingles, CVS, Walgreens, Walmart, Sam’s Club, U-Save-It) has its own site for signing up, or you can scan major retail locations and link to their websites through vaccinefinder.org. Vaccinespotter.org also says it continually scans pharmacy sites and updates information about availability.

The Georgia Department of Public Health has a list that includes independent pharmacies and clinics and a site for scheduling appointments through county health departments. The Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency operates nine mass vaccination sites around the state, including one at the Delta Airline Museum in Hapeville, with its own sign-up link. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also recently opened a mass vaccination site at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

That may sound confusing enough, but snafus can add a layer of stress—like the day Fulton County accidentally double-booked some appointments, leading to long waits and rescheduled vaccines.

After going through the anxiety of booking a vaccine appointment for her mother, who was over 65 and being treated for breast cancer, Noel Schenck and a couple of her friends formed the GA VAX COVID APPT HELP Facebook group. It now has 17,000 members and 96 volunteers, including 35 people who just help eligible people book appointments. They even respond to an email address for people who can’t navigate online forms and social media.

Eight people, including four administrators, moderate the site around the clock and assign posts to topics, such as by type of vaccine or location. The group is filled with posts of people looking for a specific vaccine (Moderna, Pfizer, or Johnson & Johnson) or struggling to make a second appointment.

One bit of advice from Schenck: Just provide the minimally necessary information on the website forms. For example, don’t spend time hunting for the spelling of your doctor’s name. “We literally put in Smith or Hall. That information is not pertinent,” says Schenck, 40, a real estate agent from Roswell. “We tell everybody to select ‘no insurance.’ By the time you type in your group number and member number, your appointment can be gone.” You can still present your insurance card and other information at the appointment, she says.

In online posts, group members share their experiences and tips about which site still has appointments available. A heart-filled thank you drew 92 likes. “I’m brought to tears almost every day by stories, anecdotes, just what the shot means to people and the anxiety not getting it has caused them,” says Schenck.

That is the best part of this vaccination journey as it plays out on social media: Collective anxiety ends in shared joy.

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