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Your best tips for hunting vaccine appointments online

How tech-savvy Post readers are nabbing scarce coronavirus shots for themselves — and their neighbors

People without appointments stand in line to possibly receive a dose of the coronavirus vaccine in Henderson, Nev. (Roger Kisby/Bloomberg)
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Being a computer whiz ought to be the last thing standing between the lifesaving coronavirus vaccine and eligible arms.

Yet wrestling with confusing, overlapping vaccine websites has become a major source of stress for American seniors and the family and friends helping them get shots. In places where supply is low, people are trying appointment sites 20 or 30 times, only to watch bookings vanish because they moved too slow.

After my tech column on strategies to master vaccine websites, I heard from hundreds of you, Washington Post readers, about your own experiences. Over email and through my Help Desk, you demonstrated a tremendous desire to help the most vulnerable conquer the tech hurdles. Some volunteer appointment finders and people who look for spare doses now call themselves “vaccine hunters.”

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

“This is sort of an obsession,” says Dasha Hermosilla, of Arlington, Va., who has learned appointment systems across multiple states and now helped 30 people get shots. “They are struggling and are always amazed and thrilled when they wake up to texts and messages that I got them an appointment.”

Dominique Rychlik of Bethesda, Md. says someone helped her children, who work at grocery stores, get appointments — so she wanted to pay it forward. “I can move very quickly to secure an appointment, much more so than the elderly who are prioritized,” she says. “I think it is neat how people are stepping up.”

Here is some of your best advice for how to work appointment systems for yourself, or someone else.

Make it a team effort

Some vaccination centers release appointments in a randomized lottery system — so it can be useful to have multiple people trying simultaneously, says Philadelphia resident Carol, who asked to be identified by her first name only.

“It really helped to have multiple people log on to the site to increase the chances that one of us would be assigned a number lower than the number of appointments to be assigned,” she says. “We connected by phone to help answer any of the website questions about health conditions and recent exposure. When we secured the appointment for the eligible person in question, I could not stop crying with relief.”

For Jina Noland of Fairfax County, Va., getting an appointment for her mom required efforts by herself, her brother, her husband and her mother. “You need multiple people calling and constantly checking websites. You need persistence. You need to try all options and not just focus on one thing,” she says. “As a member of Generation X, I was able to use all my skills from getting concert tickets back in the day.”

Don’t get slowed by the details

Across many appointment systems, time is of the essence.

“Once you get a tentative appointment — and are filling in the form online — skip anything that is not required (emergency contact, primary physician). It is imperative that you act quickly — or your spot will be gone,” says Kim Murphy from Oak Beach, NY. “I’ve done 14 elderly relatives and neighbors so far and this seems to help.”

Help Desk: Ask our tech columnist a question

It’s risky, but Arlington volunteer Hermosilla says she has discovered many appointment systems don’t care if some of the information you enter upfront is inaccurate. “Either have it handy or … make it up. That may sound terrible, but when in doubt I make up information,” she says. “If I have a slot in front of me, I’d rather throw any numbers in there and see if it takes so I can snag the appointment.”

Select later dates

Melissa Daddio of Takoma Park, Md., suggests not battling with everyone else to nab the earliest appointments. Once you get the calendar open for scheduling, it’s like when you get access to Ticketmaster to select your seats for a hot concert,” she says. “Everyone is going to try to first click on the first time slot they see available for a particular day (like everyone first clicks on the front row seats). Scroll to later, more random time slots to ensure you’re not selecting the same slot hundreds of others are clicking at the same time as you.”

Spread out your chances

Since there’s no centralized vaccine system, your likelihood of nabbing an appointment increases with each additional route you try.

“Register for multiple sites,” recommends Jim Hoffman of Westminster, Colo. “I registered with 7 health care providers.”

Master the website “refresh”

Reloading websites is often a critical step to discovering new appointment inventory. But Merrit Jacobs of Lake Worth, Fla. says some people are confused on how to do that.

“The other thing that is critical … is the use of the refresh feature,” he says. “Most older people think that you need to close the browser and open it up again when you say refresh. So I provide an image of what the refresh symbol looks like.”

In most Web browsers, it looks like a circle with an arrow inside.

Your questions about coronavirus vaccines, answered

Or, you could save yourself the clicks by making websites reload themselves. “For webpages that require constant refresh to see new availability, consider using an auto-refresh extension that allows you to set the refresh interval,” suggests Liliana Bastian in Austin. She used Easy Auto Refresh for Chrome. “Just watch for any changes in availability that may interest you.”

Be persistent

“Don’t give up on a session right away, even if the website crashes/freezes,” says Bill Citara of Sarasota, Fla. “I got my first appointment after the Charlotte County website crashed, then came back live a half-hour or so later.”

Persistence paid off for Citara. “It took me several hours of trying on three different days before I could even get into the system, despite having several browser windows open a good 15 minutes prior to the site going live,” he says. “And you will need to have several browser windows open.”

Don’t totally give up on Facebook

Facebook is a hotbed of vaccine misinformation, but Deborah Vogel of South Pasadena, Calif., says she still finds it useful.

“The resource that most helped me, amid all the others you discussed, were the dreaded Facebook neighbor groups,” she says. "I joined as many as I could stand and got tons of info. One group had an MD who seemed to have inside sources on where the next availability would be.”

Make your own alerts

To help her parents in Texas, Amy Jones of Washington, D.C. realized she needed a better information. “I learned how to change my Twitter settings to get a phone notification whenever the Houston Health Department tweeted,” she says.

“I also discovered that I could install an add-in on Chrome that would monitor webpages for changes,” says Jones. “I used Distill.io. I found 8 to 10 vaccine sign up pages and monitored them. Every time something changed, an alarm would sound on my computer. Lots of false alarms, but eventually success!”

Other services vaccine hunters are using to automatically check sites for changes include Visualping and the Chrome extension Web Alert. (I haven’t personally tested all these services, so use with caution.)

And tech-savvy people like Noah Marcus from Berkeley Heights, NJ, set up systems that also help others. “I have created two Twitter bots for two counties in New Jersey (Union and Bergen) and am putting together a third (for Essex County) that tweet whenever new appointments are released by the county,” he says. (He notes the Union bot is currently out of commission because the county added a Captcha to its website.)

“This started out as an effort to get my partner’s 74-year-old dad the vaccine, but I immediately knew everyone should have access to this information.”