For six weeks, I frequently logged onto the state Department of Health’s website searching for a COVID-19 vaccine for my 75-year-old husband. I’d plug in his Medicare information, answer questions and finish only to see the notice “no appointments available.”
Like with so many people, finding a vaccine proved fruitless and frustrating. We scheduled an appointment in Olympia, only to discover upon arrival that the shots were reserved for those needing the second dose of the vaccine. The same thing happened to a friend in Centralia.
A post on a friend’s Facebook page suggested checking th group “Find a Covid Shot WA.” I joined that grassroots volunteer group and posted a notice seeking help. Within two days, my husband received his first vaccine dose at a Safeway in Lacey.
Tales of relief and gratitude fill the Facebook page created in January by Seattle volunteers Sharla, an event manager, and her brother, Steve, who works in marketing and technology. In less than two months, they’ve trained 75 volunteers via Zoom to gather and share COVID-19 vaccination information and added nearly 40,000 members to the Facebook page who also share tips for finding shots.
“It started because Sharla is high risk, and we realized that if two white adults from suburban Seattle were having trouble finding out how to do it, it was going to be incredibly hard for individuals who have systemic barriers to overcome,” Steve said, referring to people with language barriers or limited internet and health care access.
“We didn’t want them to be left behind or forgotten,” Sharla said.
The brother-sister team and many volunteers spend 15 to 20 hours a day connecting people with the coveted coronavirus vaccines.
When volunteer Maria Bannister messaged me, I felt a bit leery providing insurance and other information to a stranger, but I had run out of options.
“We try to empower the individual to book their own appointment, not only so there’s less personal information exchanged but also so they can turn around and help their neighbors get appointments,” Sharla said. “We know that’s not always possible, so that’s why we don’t allow our volunteers to keep anyone’s personal information past the time they find them an appointment.”
Lewis County has hosted several mass vaccinations at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds, but those appointments fill quickly.
“I do know it’s a frustrating time for folks that are there looking to get a vaccine,” said J.P. Anderson, Lewis County’s public health director. “I can assure you we are doing all we can.”
And, he added, “It will get better.”
Kyle Pratt of Chehalis, a 65-year-old with a compromised immune system, wrote a letter to the editor last week venting his frustration with trying to find the vaccine. When the mass vaccinations at the fairgrounds opened last week, he signed up immediately and received his first shot Thursday.
Although it took more than an hour to drive through, he described the event as well organized. He and his wife handed over their paperwork and received the shots while sitting in their car wearing masks and short-sleeved shirts. They’ll receive their second dose at the fairgrounds in three weeks.
Initially, Anderson said, receiving allocations of the vaccine proved difficult.
“Now as we do start to get it, it is really starting to put the strain on our local operations.”
It seems people on the Facebook page often find shots quickly.
“We have no secret insider heads-up about openings, just amazing people clicking refresh,” Sharla said.
She said volunteers selflessly donate time and energy to help others.
“We are here as neighbors to help our neighbors, despite the hiccups,” Sharla said, “and the humanity shared in the group has shown us a bright light in a really dark year.”
Bannister, who lives in Redmond and retired after 35 years in the biotech/pharmaceutical industry, volunteered with the Facebook group after her frustration trying to find the vaccine for her elderly parents in southern Florida.
“I could feel my mother’s panic, desperation and total helplessness over email,” she said, noting that her mother is deaf. “I knew I needed to do something.”
Even though she rose at four each morning to compete for shots on the East Coast, she couldn’t find appointments for her parents to receive the vaccine until connecting with a South Florida Vaccination Facebook group.
“After I found this group, my mother posted her and my father’s situation, and the community rallied together to find their guardian angel,” Bannister said. “They were vaccinated that afternoon in an African Episcopalian Methodist Church.”
She experienced immense relief.
“I felt such gratitude, faith in humanity, and relief but also so empowered that I decided to look for an opportunity similar in Washington,” she said. “I was trained to work with high-risk groups like the elderly, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) community, people with disabilities and language-challenged individuals to personally secure vaccine appointments for them. I’m now doing this in every waking hour and am getting close to having set up 200 appointments. I am successful because the FB page community is beyond awesome. Everyone is collectively sharing their wealth of knowledge so each person I work with has the knowledge of 70 volunteers — not just me.”
Bannister also teaches others on the Facebook site how to search.
It’s wonderful to see volunteers step in where the government has floundered. Washington ranks 31st among states in distribution of the vaccine it has received. Sharla acknowledged it’s a big job to reach everyone, especially underserved communities.
“We are hoping that when all of this is over, we can share what we’ve learned about this process with the government to make sure if there is a next time, that it’s smoother and more equitable,” Sharla said. “We are hoping for and open to those conversations.”
Why do she and her brother devote so much time and energy to the site?
“The comfort of knowing our efforts are saving lives and making our community safer so we can get back to living life sooner, especially for those communities that are often left behind, helping close that equity gap,” Sharla said. “It is a lot of work, but it’s been the best month of our lives.”
Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.