Faced with endless frustration and fruitless searches for COVID-19 vaccine appointments, Bay Area residents have launched a grassroots effort to help one another sign up for the vaccine and get immunized — all without having to camp out in front of a computer all day.
The Facebook group Bay Area vaccine hunters has been a hub for residents in search of the COVID-19 vaccine, who trade tips, workarounds and other tools to get an appointment when they become available. Leaders of the Facebook group say vaccine providers have made it difficult to get the shot, and that it falls to the community to help one another.
One member of the group is Mukesh Aggarwal, who said his story is all too common. His father is older and has conditions that put him at high-risk of getting severely ill and dying from COVID-19, but getting him an appointment was an exhausting chore. Each provider has its own website that must be checked periodically throughout the day for available appointments, and some are designed to make people sign up only to later reveal no vaccines were available.
"Most of them are set up in a way where you have to enter all your personal information over two or three pages, and after that they tell you whether there is an appointment or not," Aggarwal said. "All of that work is completely wasted if there isn't."
Aggarwal joined the Bay Area vaccine hunters, and has since developed his own workaround: A program that automatically checks more than 100 vaccine sites across the Bay Area, scraping data once per hour to ping people when appointments are available. It's done through an app called Telegram, and searches everything from private pharmacies like Rite-Aid and Walgreens to public vaccination sites like the Moscone Center in San Francisco.
As of Monday, there were 3,000 people using the program and 200 more joining each day.
It's unreasonable to expect people to sit hunched in front of a computer all day constantly refreshing web pages in search of the vaccine, Aggarwal said, but people are desperate to protect themselves and loved ones from the virus. Yet the alternative — using California's "My Turn" sign-up system — is practically useless, he said. Nobody he has ever signed up through My Turn has ever received a notification.
Underscoring the desperation, Aggarwal said people who do score an appointment are willing to travel anywhere in the greater Bay Area and beyond to get the shot.
"There are so many people who are ready to go at a moment's notice to get the vaccine, and are willing to drive to Sacramento to get it," he said. "A lot of people have lost their loved ones and they know that this is serious, especially for folks who are high risk."
Since vaccinations began in December, roughly 500,000 people in Santa Clara County have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, including over half of all those age 65 and older. About 10,000 of those immunized have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one dose.
Vaccination rates are higher in San Mateo County, which has vaccinated 235,000 people — more than one-third of all residents age 16 and older — and administered over 355,000 shots.
Despite the progress, state and county health officials say there remains a severe vaccine supply shortage, and that the unpredictable allocations from week to week make it difficult for providers to plan ahead for appointments. The mix of high demand and short turnaround means available appointments are published online and quickly snatched up, creating the dynamic that Aggarwal says is driving people to find workarounds.
Aggarwal, who works for Intuit in Mountain View, said his program is a work in progress, and must constantly be updated as vaccine providers change their websites — some even putting up barriers to keep it from working. It takes a lot of work, but he said it's worth it to hear people are finally able to get an appointment and protected themselves and others.
It's free to use, but he said anyone who gets an appointment through his program is encouraged to pay it forward and help others — particularly those who may not be tech savvy or have access to a computer.
"If you are able to get help from the app, reach out to underprivileged people and help them get the vaccine too," he said.
Anyone interested in signing up for the notifications can download the Telegram app for Android or iPhone. Users can then either search for BayAreaVaccineNotification in the app or click the link t.me/bayareavaccinenotification.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.