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Vaccine hunters step in to help those getting lost in tech-savvy competition for doses

Vaccine hunters step in to help those getting lost in tech-savvy competition for doses


Dr. Elizabeth Bergamini works nights as a pediatrician. During the day, she juggles caring for three children — ages 4 months, 2 and 5 — while booking vaccine appointments for others.

She estimates she’s helped about 500 people. She sits on the couch, while feeding or rocking her baby, with her laptop, her husband’s computer and phone.

“I spend a lot of time stalking websites and refreshing pages,” said Bergamini, 31, of Wildwood. “It’s a million different little links. If you are not a little bit tech-savvy, you can’t navigate these systems.”

Butch Hartmann of Richmond Heights was in that category. He saw a Feb. 17 story on the news about Mary Grobe, an area school teacher who was helping others find vaccine appointments. Hartmann, 78, called her school district and left her a message.

Hartmann was desperate to find a dose for his longtime girlfriend, Betty White, 74. With no computer or smartphone, he was having no luck with the health systems.

Grobe called him back, and four days later, Grobe had scored White an appointment at Walgreens in Ferguson. All White had to do was show up.

“She’s super cool on the computer, you know,” Hartmann said, “I call her the queen of the vaccine hunters.”

Grobe, 41, of St. Louis, is one of several “hunters” helping others navigate what has become the complicated world of finding COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

Every pharmacy, local health department, hospital system, clinic or state mass vaccine event has a different way to register or book appointments. And one must be quick.

With appointments getting snapped up as soon as they open, those with the time and savvy to monitor websites have a leg up. Residents able to travel to rural areas, where it’s easier to get appointments, also have an advantage.

Grobe said she’s helped about 600 people get appointments, mostly at pharmacies and clinics outside of urban areas.

“A lot is outside of St. Louis,” she said. “There’s more demand in St. Louis than we have appointments for people. I have people going to Farmington, Desloge, you are talking an hour or more away, because they want their vaccine.”

‘Do it now’

A recent report from Deloitte Consulting, a firm hired by the state of Missouri, found that during the last week of February, residents of the more populous areas of St. Louis, St. Charles and Jackson counties were the most mobile in seeking vaccines. The report also showed that the largest vaccination gaps — the number of eligible residents who have not gotten a dose — have remained in the urban areas for the past month.

Competition is fierce. Grobe knows the times when pharmacies post their next round of open appointments. She monitors social media accounts of locations, which often share when they’ve received shipments and plan to open appointment times.

Armed with her phone, she checks the sites when she wakes up, during breaks each day and at night. She maintains a list of about 30 people to text, call or book an appointment for when she spots an opening.

“And they know if I message them,” she said, “they better do it now.”

Grobe also has another list of teachers who become eligible for vaccines on Monday along with other essential workers like grocers and bus drivers — a total of 550,000 residents across the state.

But Grobe said she is still helping health care workers, who were among the first eligible, to find doses. Mostly, she helps those over age 65 with qualifying high-risk health conditions.

She has friends keeping an eye out as well. “We message each other when we see openings,” Grobe said. “It’s a lot of networking.”

Digital divide

Barry Brimer, 46, of west St. Louis County, says he can’t help people like a doctor or a teacher can, but he works in IT and is a computer wizard.

Brimer created a computer script to monitor 20 different appointment sites that notify him whenever one has changed and may have openings.

“I feel this is a very important thing that needs to get done,” he said. “It frustrates me to no end that it’s this hard for people who really need it the most — those who can’t do this, whether it’s because of technology, resources or time — aren’t getting taken care of.”

Many appointments are located outside the St. Louis region in places like Hannibal, Cuba, Columbia, Salem and Rolla, Brimer said.

He estimates he spends up to three hours a day searching for appointments, each time helping about 10 people get booked along with countless others who see his Facebook posts about openings. He also shares information in private Facebook groups: St. Louis and Eastern Missouri COVID-19 Vaccine Info, which has over 33,000 members, and the much smaller Missouri Vaccine Equity Group, which is focused on helping those who face the most challenges in finding a dose.

People find Brimer and other hunters through word-of-mouth. Those Brimer helps include people scared they may fall prey to email scams or suspicious websites. Others need help figuring out the eligibility rules. Some face more difficult barriers.

Two disabled women, roommates in their 50s, needed appointments close by and within the short time-frame their caretaker worked and could transport them. Brimer said he had to watch sites like a hawk for days.

Without his help, “these people would not have been vaccinated in a timely manner,” he said. “There’s just no way.”

Dr. Hilary Babcock, infectious disease expert with BJC HealthCare & Washington University School of Medicine, discusses why coronavirus cases have dropped dramatically since the start of the year in Missouri and across the country, and why  following prevention efforts and getting vaccinated are still important.

The latest tip shared on social media to beat others to available doses is to change the time zone on your computer or phone, which triggers earlier access to open appointments at Walmart pharmacies.

Those with the skills and technology are increasingly the ones able to book appointments, despite COVID-19 hitting the marginalized the hardest.

“That’s why I feel it’s so important to do this,” Brimer said. “The digital divide is getting worse, and now it’s literally a matter of life and death.”

Tears of joy

Bergamini has gone beyond hunting down available doses; she has even driven others to appointments hours away in places like Potosi, Cape Girardeau and Poplar Bluff.

At a recent mass vaccination event in Scotland County, health department administrator Sarah Krouse-Steele estimated that about half of the attendees came from outside the county. Some came from neighboring Knox, Schuyler and Clark counties, she said, but a good number also drove from St. Louis — about 200 miles away.

The department still had to redistribute about 2,000 of their 2,500 doses to another event. “Between us and the hospital, we had already vaccinated quite a few people in this county,” Krouse-Steele said.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has also said the state is transitioning to hosting more mass vaccination events in urban areas. The Missouri National Guard had been coordinating weekly 2,000-dose events in each of the state’s nine Highway Patrol regions. During a briefing on Thursday, Parson said the state’s mass vaccination teams will triple in the St. Louis area by April 1, and double in the Kansas City area.

The state will also, starting the week of March 29, shift vaccine allocations from a system based on each region’s population to one based on each region’s number of unvaccinated, eligible individuals.

Over the past week, Bergamini and others say more appointments have opened in the St. Louis area. More pharmacies are offering doses, and people are beginning to receive emails and calls from local health departments and hospitals.

Hartmann said White got her first call back from SSM Health on Wednesday, about two weeks after Grobe helped her get an appointment at Walgreens.

The vaccine hunters say their only reward is hearing how grateful people are to finally be able to see their grandkids or venture out of their homes.

“I’ve enjoyed seeing how much joy and relief people get by having that appointment,” Bergamini said. “People have called me crying, they are so happy.”

Grobe is driven by her own experience with COVID-19. She was infected in November and became extremely ill. She missed six weeks of work and still suffers breathing issues. She doesn’t want anyone else to go through that. She also remembers what it felt like getting vaccinated.

“When I got that first shot,” she said, “it felt like winning the lottery.”

Annika Merrilees of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this story.

As a new tier of essential workers become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, St. Louis County is working to reduce the number of people still waiting on the shot, says County Executive Sam Page.

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