It started with getting her parents vaccine appointments.
Carina Wytiaz has been in a tight pandemic bubble. Her pod has immunocompromised people in it — including her mother who has had cancer and is in her 70s. As soon as vaccine rollout information started coming in, Wytiaz was on it.
“This is a thing I know I can do,” said the 44-year-old marketing director in Provo, Utah, who has worked in software for 25 years. She snagged some of the first appointments for her mom and dad.
When the relief wore off, she decided to keep going. Her county has a 10-minute window to fill out the form, “so I would find the appointment first and then start calling people,” Wytiaz said.
She started with her neighbors, a newlywed couple in their late 70s. She called, said she had an appointment, and offered the slot. She says the woman, an immigrant from Germany, began to cry. They had been getting up early and trying multiple times for days, but they just couldn’t get through.
“It was finally a thing that was in my control,” Wytiaz said. “I was able to use the skills that I’ve developed over my entire career to help the people around me get vaccinated.”
She started texting friends and asking if they needed help getting appointments for their parents. And now that Utah’s eligibility allows everyone over 16 to get the vaccine, she is helping get appointments for her friends’ children, too. She has gotten over 20 people appointments and started volunteering for the county. Because she speaks Spanish, she has been able to help those with limited English at the vaccine site and through calls reaching out to those who may need appointments.
In Arizona, Wytiaz’s friend Jessie Jensen, has been posting tips for getting appointments on Twitter to help get people their shots. After getting more than 20 people in her own circle vaccinated, she started volunteering at a vaccination site near Tempe.
The vaccine rollout has been fractured as cities, counties and states are using different eligibility requirements. Users often have to navigate clumsy websites to get shots into their arms. The system overwhelmingly favors those who can pounce on online openings as soon as they are released.
As a result, armies of good Samaritans have sprung up in the past few months, using their hard-won knowledge of the system, local regulations and infrastructure to help.
Like Wytiaz, many are women who started off by getting appointments for family, then realized that they had undergone a crash course they could use to help those less privileged.
These women say the system has failed, and it’s come down to individuals, mutual aid groups and grass-roots volunteer organizations to fill in the gaps and get the United States to herd immunity.
“We’ve had this basic, fundamental breakdown in so many of the institutions that were supposed to do their part,” Wytiaz said. “If we were all doing our part and our institutions were doing their parts, we wouldn’t have to be in this kind of circumstance.”
Diana Rastegayeva says she gets this completely. The vaccine rollout started while she was on maternity leave. As she nursed, she started booking appointments for others on her phone. She started with her grandfather, who is in his 70s and speaks limited English. She got him and his girlfriend appointments in Florida.
Then, like Wytiaz, she kept going. Rastegayeva lives in Boston, near her husband’s family, and booked appointments for her in-laws.
“I just started being that person who’s sending a ‘tips and tricks’ email to all of my friends and family who were eligible or near eligible,” said Rastegayeva, who is a chief of staff at a cancer genomics company and has a management consultant background. She became known for being that person who listened to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s news conference to share what she learned.
“Then obviously, many of them couldn’t fathom doing what I was suggesting. So I was like, ‘I’ll just sign you up, give me all your info.’ Then that expanded. I was signing up friends of friends, and I was setting up people I didn’t know,” she said.
Her vaccine tips grew into a newsletter that reached hundreds of people. A mother of two young children, she is in a Facebook moms’ group in which her peers voiced frustrations with getting their families vaccinated. Her network grew exponentially. But so did her unease about the inequity in vaccine appointments.
The people she was helping were like her — people with computers, who speak English, who have health insurance and can set up a Google Chrome extension. Or they have kids or grandkids to do those things.
Rastegayeva built a simple website, Massachusetts Covid Vaccination Help. The team started off with her and about 20 moms from her group. Several weeks later, she registered as a nonprofit with hundreds of volunteers.
Volunteers book appointments, pick up voice mails from a toll-free phone line, do community outreach, and offer translation and interpretation in many languages.
“It's like a whole thing now,” she said.
Rastegayeva’s group is aimed toward those “who are the most disadvantaged in the current system,” she said.
She says they prioritize geographic areas that have been badly impacted by the coronavirus, BIPOC populations, residents over 75, people with accessibility challenges, undocumented people and people who don’t speak English.
“There are a lot of people who are totally locked out of the system,” she said.
Similarly, in New York, Rebekah Hanousek-Monge and Chelsea Lavington started a Facebook group in January, Helping NYC get Vaccinated, which now has 9,000 members. Some members, “vaccine angels,” have made over 500 appointments for other people, Hanousek-Monge said, although the goal of the group is to help people make their own slots.
Members of the group have created posters in Spanish and Mandarin, distributing posters to heavily Asian or Hispanic neighborhoods.
Rastegayeva’s maternity leave ended this week, but she says she is taking two weeks of vacation to figure out how to continue working on the website as she returns to work.
“People keep asking, maybe there won’t be a need for the group, everyone should be eligible, and there’s going to be so many vaccines,” she said. “That just really misses the very real difficulties that people are facing in this system that are not going away. I don’t think our work will go away.”