Alexandrians band together to help each other find vaccine appointments

Alexandrians band together to help each other find vaccine appointments
(File photo)

By Allison Hageman |

Alexandria resident Vineeta Anand said she looked everywhere for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment. Despite being eligible under phase 1b for her medical conditions, she could not find an appointment – until she received help from a friendly neighbor and her community.

When she first pre-registered in January, Anand said she was happy to wait her turn for the vaccine. In February, her urgency changed when she learned that her 92-year-old mother in India had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Anand decided she needed to travel to India to be by her mother’s side. That was when her hunt for a COVID-19 vaccine began.

While looking for a vaccine appointment Anand, who is 64, updated her pre-registration to include her pre-existing medical conditions – asthma and autoimmune disorder – which make her eligible under phase 1b. She reached out to a vaccine hunting group that asked if she would travel to southern Maryland and then sent her an email saying they weren’t able to help any more people.

Anand then followed the lead of a lucky friend who received a leftover vaccine dose at a D.C. pharmacy, only to be told they were no longer giving those doses out.

Anand registered at Walgreens, Rite Aid and CVS but was turned away because she did not fit into the 65-and-over age group. She even wrote to her political representatives. Anand looked into options from Abingdon, Virginia to Kentucky and West Virginia before finally reading the Rosemont Citizens Association listserv, where she saw a comment from Jacqueline Bourgeois.

Bourgeois shared the NOVA Vaccine Hunters Spreadsheet, which also has a Facebook page. Anand joined the group and told her story to Bourgeois.

There are many people in the NOVA Vaccine Hunters Facebook group and in the community who, like Anand, are eligible or have eligible family members looking for vaccine appointments. The Facebook group has become a safe space where residents can ask questions, share their frustrations and celebrate when they get vaccine appointments.

“Alexandria isn’t doing a great job of keeping people updated. Kind of aggravating to hear that friends all over the DMV are getting shots while we can’t get an appointment,” one member wrote.

“Just scheduled my first dose in Alexandria City! I am 1b and not in a census tract,” another member wrote to celebrate receiving an appointment.

Chris DeMay, a Chantilly resident and founder of the NOVA Vaccine Hunters group, defines vaccine hunting as helping people navigate the “seemingly unnecessarily complex” vaccine appointment process.

“Vaccine hunting is not about jumping the line or breaking rules,” DeMay said. “It’s all about helping people find the vaccines they are eligible for.”

The group has grown to more than 10,000 members and is filled with people from around Northern Virginia who want to help. DeMay’s fellow moderators are volunteers and other group members who may have received advice about vaccine appointments from the site and are now offering advice themselves.

People in the group sometimes self-partner to find vaccine appointments, DeMay said, as one person with vaccine knowledge helps someone else who is having trouble finding an appointment.

“So candidly, the way the group is set up, the goal is not for me, for Chris, to help 10,000 people get vaccines,” DeMay said. “It is absolutely a crowdsource effort.”

He also said people “understandably” get confused between the Virginia Department of Health guidelines and the requirements of specific clinics.

“One of the best examples of that is that CVS, for a while, was only allowing folks who were 65 and older. They, at the Governor’s request, expanded that to include teachers. That was after President [Joe] Biden had put an emphasis on getting all teachers vaccinated,” DeMay said.

DeMay said that he has noticed a pattern: when the next group is on the cusp of being eligible, people who qualify under that next eligibility group are often unable to find vaccine appointments. According to DeMay, for a time it was people 65-and-older who could not find appointments, and now they can quickly find appointments for people in that eligibility group.

“Along the way as things get better, we’re doing our best to collectively, as a community, help those that are on the cusp of eligibility,” DeMay said.

Another member of the community helping Alexandrians find vaccines is Alexandria resident Sawyer Thompson, an eighth grader at Burgundy Farm Country Day School. After watching a news report that showed how hard it was for people to book vaccine appointments, Thompson created a website called DMV Vaccine that simplifies the process of accessing various vaccine portals.

“I always thought to myself, surely it can’t be that hard to get a vaccine appointment, but it really was. And I knew if they had the technology to make these vaccine portals, I could make these vaccine portals easier to use. And so that’s exactly what I did,” Thompson said.

Now his Twitter and website show 10 different vaccine portals in the DMV area on one page. This way, according to Thompson, people do not have to be on their computer all day in order to find a vaccine appointment.

“One person [on Twitter] left a comment saying that they were looking for a vaccine appointment and that they were struggling,” Thompson said. “And within an hour of finding DMV Vaccine, they were able to get a vaccine appointment for their parents. And that was exactly the reason why Icreated DMV Vaccine: to help my community out during this vaccine shortage.”

Specific community groups and nonprofits in Alexandria have also been working with the Alexandria Health Department to help their members. Senior Services of Alexandria helped members who are 75 and over access vaccine appointments at the beginning of the year and Casa Chirilagua, a nonprofit that serves the majority Hispanic community of Chirilagua, has been helping eligible Spanish speakers sign up for appointments.

In the nearby Fairfax County section of Alexandria, the Westgrove neighborhood has been seeking volunteers to assist people 65 and over with scheduling vaccinations.

In listservs, Facebook groups, nonprofit networks and community hubs, neighbors in Alexandria are helping people like Anand navigate the sometimes obtuse vaccine appointment process. For people like Anand, sometimes a guardian angel comes in the form of a neighbor they may not even know lives on the “same street, different block,” Anand said.

After they connected, Anand said Bourgeois helped her with every step up until she received her first COVID-19 vaccine dose on March 5. Her second dose is scheduled for April, and Anand plans to fly to India to see her mother two weeks later when the vaccine is fully effective.

After receiving her first vaccine dose, Anand wrote in the Rosemont listserv, “I’d like to give a huge shoutout to Jacqueline. Thanks to her I got the first jab today. What an amazing neighborhood we live in!”