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Spotlight: Detroit Area Vaccine Hunters

The Covid 19 pandemic has stretched past the one-year mark and there’s been a lot of talk lately about vaccines. Who qualifies for a covid 19 vaccine? How do you sign up if you do qualify? Where can you even find the vaccine? To shed some light on these questions, Ahead of the Curve spoke with Whitney Raska, Clinical Research Fellow at National Center for Patient Safety and one of the moderators of the Detroit Area Vaccine Hunters Facebook group.   

Ahead of the Curve: If you had to give an “elevator speech” about what your group does, how would you describe it? 

Whitney Raska: Detroit Area Vaccine Hunters are a group of volunteers who have been working to find COVID-19 vaccines for those who are struggling to find appointments themselves. 

AOTC: What motivated you to start/join this group? 

WR: I work two different jobs in healthcare. As a fellow at the National Center for Patient Safety, I helped with the final check of the COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the Ann Arbor VHA. As a pharmacy technician at Walgreens, I worked at a free COVID testing clinic in Detroit all spring and then in December a team of 6 of us were working to vaccinate thousands of patients at 230 different long-term care facilities across the state of Michigan.  

I am passionate about health equity. I have dedicated my career thus far to increasing access to specialized care for marginalized populations and don’t plan on stopping any time soon! COVID-19 has highlighted the disproportion in accessible care and how detrimental these disparities are to health outcomes. The CDC made a commitment to immunize those who are most vulnerable first, yet the registration system to make a covid vaccine appointments severely hinders those exact populations, the seniors who are not nearly as fast on computers as younger generations. 

It breaks my heart knowing how many people are still struggling to find appointments. There are people who haven’t left their house in over a year because of the fear of this virus and them stepping outside for the first time is dependent on them being immunized. Constantly being in a healthcare environment, it is sometimes difficult for me to remember that health literacy of those around me is far above average. My friends and coworkers were all offered vaccine appointments so early, so we didn’t have to endure the heartache of spending hours on the phone or constantly refreshing web browsers to get our immunization. I can only imagine the agony and frustration others felt. 

 

AOTC: Why did you choose to use Facebook as a platform: 

WR: Back in December, as my coworkers and I we were on our way to a clinic, I slipped, fell, and completely shattered my ankle. I had to have surgery and haven’t been able to walk for 2 months now. I felt awful knowing that I had the ability to help with vaccine efforts, but because of my now limited mobility, I couldn’t physically be there to put shots in arms. Having a more in-depth background of the healthcare system, the and the vaccination process, and seeing how difficult it was for so many to obtain appointments, I knew I could help in another way. I have never been one to “take a break,” I live by packed schedules and thrive when I’m able to help others. With a long recovery ahead of me, I was looking for ways to fill my time while also abating the guilt I felt for not being able to vaccinate physically. 

I started by compiling a list of “tips and tricks” to find Covid vaccination appointments and then started booking appointments for friends and family. When I came across the “Detroit Area Vaccine Hunters Facebook Group,” it quickly ballooned into helping the general public. Me and a few girls built a survey and started spreading it widely. So far, we’ve helped over 2,000 eligible patients get their vaccine and won’t stop until we check everyone off of our list. Our team of volunteers has grown immensely, and we’re able to find appointments for those eligible within hours now. As someone who thrives by helping others, I have found so much light telling seniors who have been struggling for months to find an appointment that they’ll be vaccinated within a week. They always thank me for helping them, but in reality, they’re helping me just as much. 

AOTC: Walk me through the step-by-step process. What happens when someone connects with you? 

WR: There is a survey that anyone 18+ can fill out to receive help finding a vaccine. This collects basic information needed to make others an appointment. The results go to an excel sheet which we sort based on age, comorbidities, location, etc. We have a list of clinics that we try to match-up patients with. If the sign-up requires additional information, we’ll call the patient and walk through the registration process together. Once an appointment is confirmed, we move the patient’s name to the “completed” tab of our excel spreadsheet and contact them to tell them the good news. This is the absolute best part! I have so many texts and emails saved from those I’ve helped- hundreds of them. They send pictures of them receiving their shots and share stories of how difficult this year has been for them. We confirm the appointment time, ensure they have transportation and know how to get there, and explain what to expect. People often follow-up with me post-appointment to tell me how it went, and I breathe a sigh of relief that’s just as big as theirs. 

AOTC: What organizations do you work closely with? 

WR: Having a large group of volunteers benefits us immensely. The social capital we have to connect with hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies has been mutually beneficial to booking appointments. We have a long list of eligible patients waiting for a vaccine and as more vaccines become available, immunizers have been struggling to fill clinics with patients who are actually eligible. I struggled with this a lot when I was vaccinating too. With extra doses expiring in a matter of hours after being pulled, we had to quickly find eligible patients who could drop everything and meet us at the pharmacy. It was difficult to do this while simultaneously finishing up paperwork from the clinic.  

If clinics call us, we can contact people for them. Often what happens is when there’s a few leftovers that need to go to eligible patients, the clinic tells us how many doses they have available and we call that amount of people who are close in proximity to go snatch them up. It saves times and energy on both ends. 

There aren’t organizations we work very closely with per say, but more-so a plethora of resources. We typically schedule patients at retail pharmacies or community clinics. We’ve been trying to build connections with home health services or medical transportation companies because that seems to be our biggest barrier right now. 

AOTC: What are some things you wish the public knew about your group and what you do? 

WR: I think the most frustrating aspect of this is how picky some people can be with appointments. There are times where we’ve scheduled 5 different appointments for the same person, and they’ve canceled all of them for one aspect or another. People think we have a magic wand where we can book them anywhere, but that’s not the case. We follow the same registration process as the general public. Most of our volunteers work full-time jobs on top of volunteering, so we’re quite literally dedicating all of our free time to vaccine hunting, myself included. We’ll set alarms to wake up in the middle of the night, since that’s when the majority of places open appointments, yet we still have to go to work the next day. While we try our best to make accommodations, people have to be flexible and work with us. These are unprecedented times, and we need to make reaching herd immunity a priority. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with most and the majority are overwhelmingly grateful for our assistance. 

AOTC: What tips do you have for someone with a loved that needs help scheduling or traveling to a vaccine appointment? 

WR: The faster we work together to eradicate this disease; the quicker life will return to normal. Reach out to those who are eligible and still looking for an appointment. Research every single healthcare system in the area to see if they’re offering vaccinations. This includes hospitals, community clinics, and pharmacies. I hate to say this for I wish there were more suitable means for quickly spreading information to older population, but Facebook does have a lot of really good resources. Joining Facebook pages of your community can be extremely helpful when looking for local vaccination clinics. Our page, Detroit Area Vaccine Hunters has tons of valuable information. Help those who struggle with technology to set-up email accounts and assist them in gaining access to their health portals. Offer rides to those with mobility issues. Be generous and understanding and offer any means you can to assist others. 

AOTC: Is there anything you would like to add? 

WR: There has been a lot of hesitancy about receiving this vaccine, mostly because of false information floating around from unreliable sources. Please do your research before refusing to get vaccinated. It is so easy to be manipulated by those who don’t understand the science behind this vaccine when we need to be listening to those who have dedicated their entire lives to fighting infectious diseases.  

If you have had COVID, you must still get vaccinated because the antibodies don’t last. Even if you’re in good health and believe you’ll only ever have mild symptoms, understand that you’re still at risk. My sister lost a young student with no underlying health conditions. You can still pass the virus to those who aren’t able to fight it off. It doesn’t discriminate, so we all need to be doing our part to keep each other safe. Walking through the hospital wards, I have seen first-hand how horrific this disease is. It is heartbreaking and I wish I could share their stories to convince others of just how serious this is. Don’t wait until it takes one of your loved ones too. A simple poke in your arm has the ability to save lives, in fact, it is already doing just that. 

I put together all of the resources I’ve been using to help others. As we move into younger eligibility groups, it seems to go faster if I give others resources than individually schedule them. This is a LIVE document, and I will continue to update it as I know of more clinics!

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1CEONwpSHbHhyrdGguoKH694vbu4wl6JUPZH0SYnBK2Y/edit?usp=sharing

Thank you to Whitney Raska for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk with us about this important topic. Learn more about the Detroit Area Vaccine Hunters by joining their Facebook Group.  

For information about upcoming vaccine appointments, visit Washtenaw County’s website to learn about new vaccine eligibility and check for open appointments. If you are 65 and over you can call the county at (734) 544-6700 and leave a message for assistance (please do not call if you are able to use the website).  

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