Volunteer COVID-19 vaccine fairies help find appointments

 Volunteer COVID-19 vaccine fairies help find appointments

Tirion and Haley Sheafor at home working through Vaccine Fairies to help others find and book COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

Tirion and Haley Sheafor at home working through Vaccine Fairies to help others find and book COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

Contributed by Tirion and Haley Sheafor

With a little faith, trust and perseverance, coronavirus vaccines fairies conjure up their own pixie dust to book appointments for strangers across the country and right here in the Carolinas.

Haley Sheafor, 26, who grew up in Cornelius, N.C., and went to high school in Charlotte, typically starts her day around 5:30 a.m., sprawled out on the floor with her phone and computer.

She methodically types strings of ZIP codes into the CVS website, scouring the pharmacy’s vaccine appointment portal for strangers she’ll never meet, in hometowns she’s never heard of or visited spanning from North Carolina to Florida. Her identical twin, Tirion, is typically right next to her, confirming the distance and travel time for potential CVS locations on Google Maps.

On separate browsers or windows, they enter the vaccine queue for Publix close to 7 a.m., knowing a big appointment drop is coming.

The sisters — who, during normal hours, work as preschool teachers and swim coaches in Charleston, S.C. — recently joined as “tinkerbells,” or new volunteers for Vaccine Fairy, an organization that’s secured more than 10,000 appointments for people scattered throughout the United States since it launched last month. Last week, they fluttered up the ranks to “senior fairy,” after booking between 50 to 99 appointments.

“It’s very rewarding. It’s just nice to know it’s something easy you can do for someone without having to put in a lot of effort,” said Haley, who estimates she and Tirion booked around 100 appointments before stretching their scheduling wings with Vaccine Fairy.

Volunteers in the organization are not paid.

In North Carolina, Charlotte is their second-hardest location to secure vaccine slots. Yet it’s the Raleigh area that’s “really struggling,” Haley said. As for vaccine availability in South Carolina, the toughest places to find slots are in Charleston or Rock Hill.

Help others find vaccines

Vaccine Fairy has a simple intake form for people seeking help with snagging appointments, as the tight national vaccine supply creates frantic late-night and early-morning competition, when healthcare providers release their limited slate of openings.

People provide Vaccine Fairy with details like their name, date of birth, address, eligibility and appointment preferences, but they’re not asked to disclose their social security number or health insurance information. That’s stored in Vaccine Fairy’s private encrypted database, and later destroyed once an appointment is successfully booked, according to the website notice.

To fill out a form, visit Vaccinefairy.org and click “book an appointment.”

For people who are not tech-savvy, or lack the time and resources to scour the internet at odd hours, the vaccination process can be overwhelming. So-called vaccine hunters, also known as vaccine angels in some circles, have devoted their expertise to bridge that frustration, accelerating the return to normal — one grateful person at a time.

Vaccine Fairy’s volunteer base now totals more than 1,200 people. Founder Katelyn Hertel, an integrations consultant by day, said she feels like Indiana Jones, looking for treasure or a needle in a haystack.

When someone’s appointment request is extremely specific — for example, a person wants to get the Johnson & Johnson one-dose shot within 10 minutes of a home, in a state that doesn’t have much J&J available — Hertel has one thought: “Challenge accepted.”’

“The fact that we even exist is just so unneeded. We shouldn’t be where we are,” Hertel said of the fractured vaccine rollout.

“But my goal in all of this is to say: We’re no longer taking requests because we no longer have any coming in. The day that Vaccine Fairy no longer exists, I can say that was a success.”

Hertel thought Vaccine Fairy’s requests were trending down, but then over the last few days, they “exploded.” As of Monday, the service has received more than 24,000 requests.

And in North Carolina, demand skyrocketed as all adults 16 and older became eligible on April 7. All South Carolina adults became eligible March 31.

Becoming a vaccine fairy

Hertel’s first vaccine hunting experience was for her parents in New Jersey. It was a “very frustrating” learning curve — and ironically, Hertel’s sister was the one who landed the appointment.

Hertel soon found herself responsible for booking appointments for friends in New York City, which cascaded into Florida, before Vaccine Fairy turned into an all-consuming process.

Five days after launching, Hertel had gained 300 volunteers, who are able to choose how many hours they devote each week. (Aside from some friends who became vaccine fairies, Hertel has not met any of her volunteers or administrators in person, due the pandemic they’re battling through appointment-making.)

“I can say that there’s a part of the population that I have helped to vaccinate,” said Hertel, who’s currently exploring alternative ways to reach marginalized communities and those without internet access.

Hertel said requestors have a common refrain: “’I haven’t been out of the house in a over year … Finally, a little bit of weight is off my shoulder.’” That’s what motivates her fairies, Hertel said.

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Katelyn Hertel, founder of Vaccine Fairy, was vaccinated at a high school in Queens, New York. Contributed by Katelyn Hertel

Haley and Tirion, the twins from the Charlotte area, never anticipated getting so involved in the vaccine rollout — or let alone, becoming vaccine fairies.

Their fairy tale started with their great-aunt, who became eligible in January, but back then couldn’t find an appointment for herself in Raleigh until April. The twins soon managed to find a first dose for Jan. 31 through Atrium Health.

Before Haley and Tirion knew it, their success morphed into a slate of extended family and friends who needed help scheduling shots in South Carolina, when eligibility expanded to adults ages 55 and older.

“Then we went through our whole list … and we were like, ‘What else can we do?’” Haley said. She and her sister were already inoculated at a Columbia vaccine clinic where they had volunteered.

They recently stumbled upon Vaccine Fairy through an increasingly popular Facebook group, called “NC/SC Vaccine Hunters.”

Prospective fairies are vetted and undergo special scheduling training before receiving their special link, which contains the vaccine requests they’re willing to handle. On Discord, an instant messaging platform, fairies signal their flexibility and are careful to safeguard person information, Hertel said.

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Twin sisters Tirion and Haley Sheafor, who grew up in the Charlotte area, are volunteers with Vaccine Fairy. Contributed by Tirion and Haley Sheafor

Twins ‘make a good team’

For Tirion, a vaccine request takes about 24 hours on average to complete, but sometimes 48 if it’s more complicated. If she can’t find an appointment in the morning, she’ll work her magic again after 5 p.m. — and then again the following the day if necessary.

Portals like Walgreens, CVS or Walmart hold appointment slots for 30 minutes. That breathing room lets Tirion reach out to requestors if she finds an appointment that’s just beyond their search criteria, such as an extra few miles from their preferred location radius.

Yet for systems like StarMed, one of Mecklenburg County’s main vaccination partners, the clock is ticking the second an appointment is selected — meaning it could disappear by the time all information is filled out, Tirion said. The twins save time by intuitively knowing what the other person needs.

“We make a good team, so it’s helpful to have someone else working with you to get things done,” Tirion said. “Since we’re twins, we don’t have to talk as much as a normal partnership would be. We generally fill in for each other a lot in our regular areas of life.”

The people who the Sheafors help often wake up and see a text message bearing the good news: a screenshot of their confirmed vaccine appointment.

In return, the twins get a heartwarming note: “thank you so much much.” Other fairies have received vaccine selfies, capping off the virtual connection.

Haley and Tirion insist other fairies are even more skilled. An “elite fairy,” for example, has made between 100 and 299 appointments. A “fire fairy,” by comparison, has booked more than 500.

“It’s awesome. It feels like a good sense of community spirit and hope that we didn’t have at the beginning of the pandemic,” Tirion said. “We feel helpful and feel like we’re making a difference in their lives, which is making our lives better. It’s a win-win, really.”

Vaccine info in Mecklenburg County: Schedule online at starmed.care or call Public Health at 980-314-9400 (option 3 for English and option 8 for Spanish. Visit Mecknc.gov/covid-19 to join the county’s waitlist or to apply for home-based vaccination. For other providers, find your spot via the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services’ MySpot.NC.gov.

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Alison Kuznitz is a local government reporter for The Charlotte Observer, covering City Council and the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. Since March, she has also reported on COVID-19 in North Carolina. She previously interned at The Boston Globe, The Hartford Courant and Hearst Connecticut Media Group, and is a Penn State graduate.
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