Judy Folkenberg went to sleep last Friday with her laptop, phone and tablet sprawled around her. The 69-year-old Kensington resident woke up throughout the night to hit refresh on each device, desperate for the one thing many Marylanders want: a COVID-19 vaccination appointment.
Maryland lacks a centralized hub to request appointments, so Folkenberg clicked through the websites of pharmacies, grocery stores and hospitals, those efforts continuing to prove fruitless. Then Folkenberg turned to Facebook, where the “Maryland Vaccine Hunters” group she had joined had grown into a resource for thousands to trade advice on how to get an appointment.
That night, another member posted a link they thought might work to get an appointment through CVS. Braced for the letdown that had followed her throughout her search, Folkenberg clicked on it.
Maryland Vaccine Hunters is the brainchild of Elliot Hazzard, a 25-year-old Mount Airy resident, who launched it with his father, Frank, about two weeks ago. Elliot Hazzard saw a story about a similar group in New Orleans dedicated to preventing doses of vaccine from going to waste at day’s end. Hazzard’s Maryland-focused page now has more than 16,000 members, with several thousand more pending invitations — suggestions from current members telling their friends and family to join.
“It’s tremendously gratifying to help so many of my fellow Marylanders,” said Hazzard, who works as a geographic information systems technician. “And I just hope that I can help many, many more.”
After following the CVS link, Folkenberg got her first dose of the vaccine Monday, becoming part of the 11% of Maryland’s 6 million-plus residents who have received at least one of the two shots needed for best immunity.
“The people on the ‘Hunters’ site, I consider ‘Cyber Angels’ because they come from all over Maryland,” she said, “and they’re helping us live again by getting vaccines.”
Folkenberg, the Hazzards and others all said the group’s existence and popularity is proof that the state is struggling to create a system that’s simple to use, especially for older residents who aren’t necessarily tech-savvy.
In some ways, Maryland Vaccine Hunters echoes the creation of pages devoted to helping Marylanders navigate the state’s unemployment system. In both situations, residents turned to each other when the government left them without clear answers.
Frank Hazzard, a 57-year-old retired fire chief who lives in Clarksville, compared Maryland’s decentralized appointment-searching system to how the federal government treated the states in the early stages of the pandemic, forcing them to track down their own virus testing kits and personal protective equipment.
“It’s a free-for-all,” he said. “‘Spray and pray’ is what we see.”
State officials have defended their vaccine distribution approach, blaming the struggles largely on vaccine supply for the federal government.
Earlier this month, Maryland Congressional leaders wrote to Gov. Larry Hogan asking for the creation of a centralized, one-stop system. Hogan dismissed their call and pointed to the state’s increase in doses administered daily while lamenting the shortage.
“‘Why can’t we get scheduled for a vaccine?’ Well, we’re waiting for more vaccines,” Hogan said. “That’s the basic issue.”
Perhaps the best resource on the Maryland Vaccine Hunters page is a spreadsheet with information on each of the locales around Maryland offering vaccinations, with details on how to navigate their websites and what times and days of the week they tend to release new appointments. Often, appointments are swallowed up quickly once they’re made available, leaving many of those searching without one.
In posts on the page, members share phone numbers to call, ask how various waitlists work, and pass around updates of appointment availability. They ask one another whether they’re experiencing the same problems, and they tell the stories of the page’s successes.
“Does anyone know how to best handle getting a senior who has trouble walking vaccinated?” one recent post read.
After several comments, a breakthrough: “Thanks to a member of this group I have an appointment for my mom this morning at [Six Flags]!” the original poster replied.
The Hazzards operate the page with the help of numerous volunteers who help moderate the page and coordinate appointments for members. Neither Hazzard is currently eligible to be vaccinated under Maryland’s phase-based system, but family members who are struggled to get appointments.
“We have high-risk members in our family,” Frank Hazzard said. “We worked hard to keep them alive for nine months, and not getting an appointment wasn’t going to be the end result of that effort.”
Neal Zarin, 70 of Montgomery Village, spent nearly a month hunting for an appointment to no avail when he messaged Shel Carr, a Maryland Vaccine Hunters’ volunteer who created the group’s spreadsheet. Zarin provided his information to Carr, who in turn set up an appointment for him.
“If you watch this group, these people are geniuses,” Zarin said. “It’s wonderful to have this group volunteer their time and do this. It’s great. It’s what America’s about.
“If it wasn’t for this volunteer group, there’d be hundreds and hundreds of people still scrambling around to get appointments.”
Zarin said he’s lost confidence in government leaders.
“I worked in government for 36 years for the Navy,” Zarin said. “I can tell you right now, if any admiral in our organization acted like our governor and [county] executive did, they would’ve been removed for lack of competence immediately.”
While members of Maryland Vaccine Hunters say the group reveals the flaws of government, it also shows the successes of Marylanders coming together to help each other. Hazzard’s original mission — to not let doses go to waste — has expanded as the group has.
One member, Frank Hazzard said, offered unused Uber credits to anyone who would otherwise be unable to travel to their appointments.
“There are a lot of people that, without this help, just wouldn’t get it done,” Frank Hazzard said. “It kind of does renew our faith in humanity, that people really want to help their neighbors out like this. It just makes you feel good to get a shot in somebody’s arm because that’s closer to the end of the tunnel.”