Once upon a time, when the Covid-19 vaccines first started being distributed, the states and drug store chains set up websites to book appointments that were so glitchy and so maddeningly hard to use that many people were plunged into despair.
Then, like magic, the “vaccine fairies” appeared.
One of them is Zulay Beltran, who lives in New Jersey and is part of a volunteer army of computer-savvy Americans who have stepped up to help family, friends, neighbors and even complete strangers book a vaccination appointment.
Their reasons for doing so range from the desire to help their fellow man to the thrill of being able to slay a digital dragon. And in Beltran’s case, each one of the 126 appointments she has been able to book were in honor of her 83-year-old grandmother Luz Maria Sosa, who died last April from the coronavirus.
“I think about how hard it would have been for her to schedule an appointment if there had been a vaccine at the time,” Beltran, 34, of West New York, told NBC News. “She would have wanted me to help others.”
Sam Mueller, who is 27 and lives in New York City, said she grew up watching her parents in Temple Terrace, Florida, struggle to secure help for her brother, who has Down syndrome.
“Am I surprised the vaccination sites are so bad? I want to be surprised, but I’m not,” said Mueller, a budding playwright who says she has booked “in the ballpark” of 80 vaccination appointments so far.
Beltran and Mueller said word-of-mouth is how most people find them. But there are organized groups of vaccination volunteers online, as well, including a nonprofit called “Vaccine Fairy” that was launched this month and which claims to have secured nearly 8,000 appointments nationwide.
And they are not alone. In Harvard, Massachusetts, which is about 30 miles west of the famous Ivy League university, a group of women who call themselves the “Vaccine Fairy Brigade” have booked about 750 appointments since February, the local newspaper, The Harvard Press, reported.
Public health expert Summer Johnson McGee said volunteers like these play a vital role in ensuring that more and more Americans get their Covid-19 vaccinations. But the fact that “vaccination fairies” even exist speaks volumes about how unprepared the federal government and states were when the first shots started became available in January, she said.
“Our need for Vaccine Fairies to assist older adults with vaccination appointments is a clear indicator of our lack of public health infrastructure and planning around the vaccination rollout,” said McGee, who is the dean of the University of New Haven’s School of Health Sciences. “The fact that the federal and state governments did not budget for and hire workers to assist individuals with access to vaccination was a huge oversight. The Fairies should be praised for their altruism while the blame goes to the government for a lack of support for older adults and sufficient staffing to help navigate this system.”
But it's not all do-gooders out there. Scammers, especially identity thieves, have preyed upon the most vulnerable Americans looking to secure shots. From coast to coast, police departments have warned people desperate for a shot to be careful about giving out their personal information.
Older residents are not only vulnerable, "but they're isolated and lonely,” Officer Candice Simeoni, who investigates elder crimes for the Kennebunk Police Department in Maine, told The Portland Press Herald recently. “Their hope is to get the vaccination and get back into the community.”
Scammers, said Simeoni, “prey on the false hope they’ll be getting a vaccination sooner.”
In a subsequent interview with NBC News, Simeoni said she felt it necessary to speak out after the department had received a number of calls from seniors who reported being approached by people promising to arrange vaccination appointments for them and asking for their social security numbers.
“I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, but there are people out there who will try to take advantage of the situation,” Simeoni said.
But it’s not just older people who are vulnerable, Mueller told NBC News.
“I’ve gotten texts from complete strangers looking for help,” she said. “There is a level of desperation out there. People are willing to leap and hope that someone will catch them.”
Beltran, a supervisor of investigations for the New Jersey Child Protective Services, said she didn’t set out to be a vaccine fairy.
“When the vaccine came out, I registered my mother on the state website,” Beltran said. “It was real struggle to navigate the site and I work for the state. I realized that if this was hard for me, I could just imagine how impossible it would be for an older person who doesn’t know how to use a computer or somebody who doesn’t speak good English.”
So, Beltran said, “I started doing my homework and going on various sites that had the latest information about vaccine availability.”
“Various people gave me tips on when is the best time to schedule an appointment, when the counties post availability, things like that,” she said. “After a while I became savvy with the system and I started scheduling appointments for my family. Then more people started reaching out to me and I started helping them.”
“Even for state employees, it’s been hard to get an appointment, so I have been helping some of them,” she said.
The pace can be grueling.
“I work from home right now, so I will work all day and then I do this overnight,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll take a nap and then get up at 2 a.m., which is often when the new appointments are posted, to schedule them.”
And, Beltran said, some of the websites are better than others.
“Some of them are not very user-friendly,” she said. “If you’re not tech-savvy or know how to use a computer, it’s almost impossible. You have to be quick, and if you’re not quick you’re not going to get an appointment.”
Beltran said she had a mild case of Covid-19 in November and so did her mother and daughter. She said she scheduled an appointment for herself for March 7 and got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, the top choice for many of the people she hears from because it requires just one shot.
“The Johnson & Johnson shot, that’s like gold,” Beltran said.
Mueller said she, too, became a vaccine fairy by accident. She said she’s booked appointments mostly for other New Yorkers, but she’s also branched out to make appointments in Chicago, which is her real hometown.
“Friends were complaining to me about how hard it was to find a shot,” she said. “Then I started to hear from friends of friends. Lately, I’ve been hearing from public school teachers.”
Like Beltran, Mueller said figuring out to how to land a shot appointment was a process of trial and error.
“I’ve gotten to know the quirks of the various websites, and a lot of it is just knowing when the new bookings are most likely to be posted and then clicking fast,” she said. “I think the game of finding a slot is easier for people who grew up with computers. I am a millennial and I’ve had a cellphone in my pocket my entire life.”
At age 64, Karen White of Massachusetts said she learned first-hand how hard it was to make an appointment when she secured one for herself and for her husband this year. But since then, White said she has been able to wrangle 35 vaccine appointments for both family and friends because she's not afraid of computers and made it her mission to learn how to navigate the CVS Covid-19 appointment website.
"Plus I'm a night owl and there aren't too many 64-year-olds who are wide-eyed and bushy-tailed between 12:30 and 1:30 in the morning when CVS posts its appointments," said White, who lives on Cape Cod. "I'm prepared and ready when they drop. I've had some evenings where I've been able to make five or six appointments. Sometimes it's just two. But it's still very gratifying."
Beltran said in the wee hours, when she’s on the hunt for appointments, she often finds herself thinking about her grandmother.
“She died at an awful time,” she said. “It was the beginning of the pandemic, and there was a waiting list to get people into funeral homes. It took several weeks before she could get cremated. We didn’t even get to have a funeral for her.”
Mueller, who got vaccinated early on because she also works in child care, said helping others has given her a lift, as well, during the pandemic.
“I call landing an appointment a game, but there is really something amazing when it works and this person is guaranteed a shot,” she said. “I think we’ve learned a lot about community, about being part of a community and who is being forgotten. This is how we keep each other safe.”