Meet the COVID-19 ‘Vaccine Hunters’ Snagging Doses for Older Ohioans

Vaxxy Drew, you're our hero.

Mar 12, 2021 at 3:10 pm

click to enlarge A Columbus Fire Department member dons gloves while working at a mass vaccination site at the Celeste Center in Columbus. - Photo: Jake Zuckerman.
Photo: Jake Zuckerman.
A Columbus Fire Department member dons gloves while working at a mass vaccination site at the Celeste Center in Columbus.

Despite her advanced degrees and self-professed tech savviness, Dr. Joanne Hilden, a retired pediatric oncologist, couldn’t pin down an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine she was eligible for.

It was like trying to find concert tickets, she said. One site after another, Hilden, 64, would leave her name and information on a list she knew would turn up dry.

Then she found Vaxxy Drew.

“I cannot give you the words for relief,” Hilden said. “She’s a goddess.”

Vaxxy Drew, a moniker alluding to teen detective of young adult literature Nancy Drew, is really Meghan Olmstead, a marketer from Akron, Ohio.

Olmstead started vaccine hunting with her high school friend Nicole Kaplan (“two nerds with not a lot to do,” she said) booking vaccines for their parents and family members.

They eventually compiled a tip sheet they shared on social media and started taking requests for help. They learned to navigate the patchwork vaccine registration system, a labyrinth of different providers each with their own system of registering vaccine appointments. They eventually expanded, building a Vaxxy Drew email account. They now say they’ve connected at least 170 eligible Ohioans to vaccines.

Olmstead spends a few hours a night surfing provider appointment pages thinking of her kids, aged 8- and 10-years old. They all want the pandemic to be over, and she sees this as the way to help speed things up.

“I’m sure everybody has their different reasons and motivations,” she said of vaccine hunters.

“To me, it’s when things feel helpless or you feel powerless, just look for that one little thing you can do.”

COVID-19 vaccines in Ohio are prioritized by age (currently 50-and-older), occupation (health care workers, first responders, teachers, death care workers) and certain preexisting health conditions. However, many of those eligible have found roadblocks to accessing their vaccine, which is still extremely supply-limited.

Ohio’s “Vaccine Management Solution” website, which launched Monday, is more of a clearinghouse redirecting residents to provider websites where they can sign up for the vaccine. It takes time, patience, internet connection and savviness — forming barriers to immunization for many Ohioans.

Stacey Bene, of Medina, and Marla Zwinggi, of Chagrin Falls — the “vaccine queens” of Northeast Ohio — say they’ve helped about 1,200 people procure vaccinations. They scour providers large and small around the area for appointments they reserve for the people who reach out.

Bene, who retired from working as a medical social worker after being diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, said despite prioritizing elderly Ohioans for vaccines, the state failed to ensure such a vulnerable population could establish an appointment and travel the last mile to ever access them.

“The tools they gave were not appropriate for the population they were supposed to serve,” Bene said in an interview.

“It just seems that this piece of vaccine rollout wasn’t addressed. The actual practical pieces of it. Getting the bodies to the locations wasn’t addressed very well at the outset.”

The duo recently penned an op-ed criticizing what the state’s centralized vaccine appointment system as a feckless website, calling it a “glorified address finder.”

On Feb. 12, Colorado man and Cleveland native Nick Waterhouse, a digital marketer, launched the “Ohio Vaccine Hunters” Facebook group. It now counts more than 2,400 members, including a small online army of self-trained volunteers who link eligible (generally older) Ohioans to appointments.

Phil Budowanec’s family was “twisting in the wind” looking for doses, until the 39-year-old Cleveland-area auditor started learning the framework of the jury-rigged system.

First he hooked up his parents. Then his in-laws. Then some friends’ parents. He said he has connected about 27 people to COVID-19 vaccines to date.

“Just booked appointments for my aunt and uncle!” he said in a Facebook message at 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday.

His wife is pregnant, which he considers an incentive to help his community seek immunity. The more people around his family who are vaccinated, he figures, the safer he and his family are.

Different vaccine hunters offered different advice: check for appointments late at night or early in the morning; put your name on every waiting list you find, not just one or two; clear cookies from your browser; refresh appointment pages often; be patient and be persistent.

As of Thursday, nearly 2.2 million Ohioans have received at least one dose of a vaccination against COVID-19. The state, in tandem with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will soon open some of Ohio’s first mass vaccination clinics in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Waterhouse, who runs the Ohio Vaccine Hunters group, said most his efforts go toward administrative functions like screening who can join (Ohioans only) or connecting hunters to people seeking vaccines.

He said the demand among eligible recipients for help setting up vaccination appointments is a national problem, as evidenced by similar “Vaccine Hunter” pages in states around the country.

While it underscores a problem in how the government functions, he said it also shows the power of people to come together and build communities.

“I think the main takeaway here is the power of community,” he said. “Times like these, where it’s so uncertain, it’s very therapeutic for people to just know they’re not in this alone.”

This story was originally published by the Ohio Capital Journal and republished here with permission.