AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austinites Andrea Grimes and Julie Ziegelman were in the same shoes a lot of adults are in now with the recently expanded eligibility: where and how can I get a vaccine?
For the past few months, that question was not easy to answer.
“It was so hard all over the state, really, to figure out how to navigate your county health department or if you had a private provider — it was just really confusing. And, the rollout everywhere was really different,” Grimes said.
Both she and Ziegelman compiled spreadsheets of information to try and figure it out on their own. The latter actually traveled to Kenedy, Texas to get a vaccine because she couldn’t find one in Austin. Through their independent searches, each found a local resource that was doing the same thing in a more concentrated effort. They hope others follow their path.
“We exist because fundamentally our founders and our organizers were appalled by the disparities in vaccine access and in the opaqueness of the process of getting a vaccine,” Grimes said.
She and Zeigelman currently volunteer for “Texas Vaccine Updates,” a grassroots, crowd-sourced resource helping Texans secure vaccine appointments. Its founder James Kip, who started it to help his family find vaccinations, has been running it for the past six to eight weeks.
The resource utilizes an online website and Slack account to help users through the process of finding a vaccine appointment nearby.
The website features a FAQ page to answer a lot of questions users may have, especially for more tech-savvy folks who may just not know where to start. The Slack account features programs, like Vaxxie, that automatically scan websites and will alert users when new appointments are available.
Ziegelman says criteria is key in searching for an appointment through their service.
“If somebody’s real specific and they say, ‘I only want Johnson & Johnson on Sunday,’ then it might take a lot longer, but if somebody says, ‘I have a high-risk medical condition. I’m looking for any vaccine on any day,’ then most likely we can find you an appointment in a couple of days.”
Now, with the latest expanded eligibility starting today, Mar. 29, the team is hoping they can meet increased demand.
“We are slightly worried about that because we don’t know what the floodgates opening will look like,” Zeigelman said. “We’ve had a lot of discussion about it and it’s just an unknown. We do definitely want to prioritize… people who really do need our help.”
Volunteers focus on 1A, 1B and 1C individuals but most importantly, the underserved — marginalized minorities, people of color, the elderly and anyone who doesn’t have access or doesn’t know how to work a computer.
Grimes believes numbers of those seeking vaccine appointments will increase throughout the week due to expanded eligibility.
For each volunteer, helping others has been an enjoyable and, sometimes, emotional process.
“I can actually give people the information they need that’s gonna help end the pandemic,” Grimes said. “To feel useful for the first time in a year and to not feel like I’m spinning my wheels every day waiting on somebody else to do something, it just feels incredible. It’s amazing and it’s positive and… helps me see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ziegelman said she’s helped more than 600 people get appointments. She’s helped more than that by just answering questions on Slack.
She said, as much as she puts in to the volunteering, she gets back from those she helps.
“There’s a personal connection with a lot of the people I meet, especially the older ones, and that’s just really what it’s about. It’s about this community and us working together,” Ziegelman said.
“If the system worked perfectly, we would not be needed. But, since it is needed, we’re there to get each person vaccinated. Our goal is for people and for families to meet. I’ve helped whole families, 10-20 people figure out, get their grandparents vaccinated and they’re gonna get to meet and be together with their 85-year-old and 91-year-old grandparent. You know, people [being] able to have those moments together.”
If you’re interested in using the online resource, you can visit the main website, where you can also find out how to access the Slack account. Texas Vaccine Updates states it doesn’t accept payment for the work it does, but it does accept donations.
Donations are split between nonprofit organizations chosen by volunteers and organizers. You can donate on the website.