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They teach all day. Between classes, they find vaccine appointments for strangers.

Sherwood High School teachers Maisie Lynch and Tanya Aguilar are part of a vaccine-hunting group that helps strangers navigate the complicated process of scheduling a vaccination. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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Maisie Lynch, an avid Facebook user, posted tips about how to secure a coronavirus vaccine appointment after successfully booking them for both her mother and herself. It didn’t take long for people to begin reaching out to her for help.

She answered their calls. But the volume soon grew overwhelming.

“Can you help me?” Lynch, 47, texted a group of six friends, all Montgomery County Public School teachers, as she is. The response was a resounding yes.

The friends named themselves the Vaccine Hunters (in Spanish, it’s Las Caza Vacunas, which translates as the Vaccine Hunt). They have since helped more than 350 elderly people, mostly in Montgomery County, get vaccinated.

A growing number of volunteer groups across the country are also using their free time to help get shots into arms. The George Washington University Hillel has worked to partner students and alumni with older adults to help them book appointments. Efforts have sprouted up in New York, including software developers working to simplify booking systems. High school students in Kentucky and community groups in California and New Jersey are also chipping away at the issue.

“We have had the elderly just crying on the phone,” said Tanya Aguilar, 45, a Spanish teacher who is part of the Vaccine Hunters. She said she is doing the work in memory of her own mother, who died three years ago, and did not have Internet access or an email address.

“If she were alive today, and without me being an advocate for her, she would be completely lost,” said Aguilar, who lives in Silver Spring. “Every time I call a senior, I’m thinking about my mom, and how she would need someone like me just advocating for her.”

How to master the vaccine-appointment website: A guide for everyone

The Vaccine Hunters created a Google Voice number, which is a phone service attached to a Google account, for people who are eligible for vaccinations to call and request their services. They also posted a Google form online in both English and Spanish where applicants could submit their information.

Each of the Vaccine Hunters monitors a different vaccine appointment website for open slots — at Giant and Safeway, for example, or county health clinics or hospitals. Once they see appointments, they race to sign up as many people on their list as possible.

“I feel so relieved, I feel wonderful. I’m so grateful to God, to these people, they are amazing,” Maria Carbonell, 80, said after the Hunters snagged appointments for her and her husband. “We are not very techie.”

Mindful of deep racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic disparities in the vaccine rollout — and the fact that most of their submissions were from White, more affluent seniors — the Vaccine Hunters reached out to Spanish-language news organizations and Black and Latino churches to advertise their services.

But word had already spread on neighborhood listservs, including in Bethesda and other tony parts of the county. And before the group’s equity efforts could bear fruit, their list grew so large that they decided to stop accepting new vaccine-seekers, at least temporarily.

“We didn’t want to keep taking people on the form and basically giving people false hope,” Aguilar said.

The group is encouraging the public to use their spreadsheet, which has information on where and how to book appointments. They are working through the remaining names on their list, prioritizing people older than 90. And they are talking with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services about whether they can be of additional help as officials try to match a huge number of eligible residents with a still-limited supply of the vaccine.

“It is such a testament to this really dedicated group of teachers, nonetheless, who already give so much to our community through their day jobs,” said Montgomery County Council member Gabe Albornoz (D-At Large). “To continue to go above and beyond and assist our residents who are desperately in need right now is really fantastic, and impressive and greatly appreciated.”

Few states are accurately tracking vaccinations by race. Some aren’t at all.

In their eagerness to find appointments, the Vaccine Hunters have sometimes used links provided to them by county residents who had registered with the health department and then were notified it was their turn to sign up.

Such links have been widely shared in Montgomery, to the frustration of health officials, who did not intend for anyone to use the links unless they received them directly from the county. Because of the link sharing, many people signed up for available appointments who were not yet eligible, or were eligible but had not yet reached the top of the county’s list.

“There’s nothing on there that says, ‘You can only use this link if you are this person,’ ” said Lynch, noting that the group has signed up eligible people only.

The county is working with state officials to make the links unshareable, said Raymond Crowel, director of the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services. He said the county and the Vaccine Hunters are in the beginning stages of developing a formal partnership, where Lynch, Aguilar and the others can register people who do not have access to a computer or time to call, and people who show up at vaccination clinics without appointments.

“We have a system where people can call us, but it is also appropriate — and we have people who are doing that for us as well — for people to reach out to Vaccine Hunters to help with actually scheduling an appointment,” Crowel said. “What we don’t want to have happen is for [links] to just be shared and used randomly.”

For people like the Carbonells, who live in Chevy Chase, Md., the help getting an appointment was — literally — a lifesaver.

Maria, a retired school psychologist, has high blood pressure, one of the medical conditions that increases risk of severe complications from covid-19. Nelson, also 80, a retired architect who was held captive in the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion, has lost three friends to covid-19.

They registered with the county and other providers, but no one ever called them back.

“We did a lot of inquiries where we could get the vaccine,” said Nelson, noting that Maria “even thought of going to Florida because we have children in Florida. They were giving vaccines in Florida. But then I said, ‘No, this is crazy. You’re not going to be on a plane to vaccinate, you’re exposing yourself to problems.’ ”

Then one of their daughters, Cristina Willingham, 54, signed them up with the Vaccine Hunters.

The couple was at one of their other daughter’s homes in Poolesville, helping their grandchildren with Zoom school, when Maria’s cellphone rang around 1 p.m. on Jan. 26.

“ ‘Mom, you have to get moving,’ ” Maria remembers Cristina saying. Then a member of the Vaccine Hunters called, letting them know their appointment was at 4 p.m. at the White Oak Community Center, across the county.

For younger generation, securing vaccine appointments for parents can be a ‘full-time job’

Lynch, who lives in Olney, went to the White Oak site two days later, wanting to make sure other people the group had signed up actually arrived on time and received their vaccinations.

She realized some elderly people were coming to the clinic without appointments, and she texted their information to her fellow Hunters, who were able to secure spots for several of them.

Suddenly, it was time for class. Lynch, who teaches business skills at Sherwood, used her cellphone hot spot to get Internet on her computer and logged onto Zoom from inside her car.

Her phone rested in between the windshield and the dashboard, so she could message with other Hunters as needed, and her computer rested on the console in the middle of her car.

“Meanwhile, I’d have some elderly person come to my car, knocking on my window asking about getting the vaccine,” Lynch said. “It was pretty hectic.”

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