'Vaccine hunters': Online community helps people find COVID vaccine appointments

A woman texts on a couch while two children play in front of her.
Maura Caldwell, who helped found the Minneapolis Vaccine Hunters Facebook group, recently works on her phone holding her youngest Lilah, while Benjamin, 5, and Ava, 3, play in their home.
Courtesy of Maura Caldwell

In late January, Maura Caldwell got a call from a friend who said that Children's Minnesota in Minneapolis had extra doses of the coronavirus vaccine. The friend wondered if Caldwell’s parents could get there quickly. They did, and after a three-hour wait, got their shots.

“At that point, vaccinations and appointments were so scarce that it really felt like we won the lottery,” Caldwell said. “I wanted to pay it forward. I wanted to help somebody else have that feeling of finding a vaccine.”

So Caldwell started a Facebook group — called the Minneapolis Vaccine Hunters.

“When I initially started the group, I was thinking, if there were extra doses, I wanted to be able to share that with people,” she said. “But it organically became something different … more how to help people sign up for appointments.”

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Since it launched on Feb. 1, the vaccine hunters Facebook group has grown to more than 20,000 members and now helps people across Minnesota find and sign up for appointments each day. Members share tips about when vaccine appointments open online, photos of themselves or their parents getting vaccines and stories of what they went through to get COVID-19 shots. The administrators also update a separate website several times a day.

Winnie Williams, a freelance software developer, manages the vaccine hunter website and helps individuals book appointments from her home in Woodbury, Minn.

"Prior to COVID, I was spending a lot of time at a local food shelf,” she said. “And I have Crohn's disease, which is why I am immunosuppressed, and my doctor reached out to me to say you need to take yourself off the front lines. So this is something that I can do that's part of the solution.”

The group has had to navigate some thorny issues, including worrying that scammers might take advantage of people by either offering to help them over the phone or to drive people to appointments.

Joel Wu, with the center for bioethics at the University of Minnesota and M Health Fairview, said these kinds of groups are useful, as long as they’re helping people who can’t navigate sign-ups or might not have the same access as others. But there’s a potential downside.

“If these groups are giving special advantages to [people] that already have privilege —  and in a way that's inconsistent with the way that our community has tried to balance that utility versus justice tension — then I think that's bad,” he said.

Syringes filled with vaccines lay on a table.
Syringes filled with the Moderna vaccine await visitors last month in Grand Marais.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

Caldwell said the group has carefully considered issues of racial equity. She said the vaccine hunters’ membership was mostly white to start but has grown more diverse. 

“I know that there are communities that are a lot harder hit and harder to find health care for,” she said. “And I wanted to be sure that I was finding a way to access and reach those groups as well.”

She said the group tries to make clear that some vaccination centers are intended to serve just the surrounding area so clinics that serve more vulnerable populations aren’t overrun with people from outside the community.

Last week, Marsha Kurka of Shoreview got her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine. She knew Williams from church and had happened on the group on Facebook. Immunosuppressed because of a kidney transplant, the 67-year-old says she was intimidated by the process of locating a vaccine appointment.

“I am not real computer-savvy,” she said.

Williams helped set up an appointment for Kurka in Plymouth.

“I'm totally grateful,” she said. “Without her, without that group, I think I just would have stayed hunkered down and believed that the vaccine was going to come to my health care system.”

Later this month, the state expects to finish vaccinating 70 percent of Minnesotans 65 and older, at which point more people will become eligible to receive a vaccine. And interest in vaccine hunters group will likely grow.