Searching for a vaccine? Answers from volunteer troubleshooters

Margaret Hiden is among those working behind the scenes to help those seeking information about obtaining a COVID-19 vaccine.
Margaret Hiden is among those working behind the scenes to help those seeking information about obtaining a COVID-19 vaccine.

Credit: Margaret Hiden

Credit: Margaret Hiden

Regular citizens become inventive, helping friends and the public find inoculations

The bumpy rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has tested our already-overworked public health system and frustrated many of those waiting for an inoculation.

When Georgia decided last week that residents 65 and older could receive the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, demand far outstripped supply. Public health centers were swamped with requests and websites crashed.

Now, as Georgians compete for scarce supplies, bad news continues to arrive. Saturday’s headline, “Officials learn vaccine reserve doesn’t exist,” added to the stress.

Into this breach stepped a few vaccine volunteers, individuals using their own expertise to try to smooth the process and get shots in arms.

Margaret Hiden, 40, is a user experience design instructor for the Home Depot, and she considers the vaccine user experience below par.

ExploreCOVID-19 vaccine in metro Atlanta: Everything you need to know

Registration forms are confusing, said the Druid Hills resident, and those seeking an appointment often don’t have the required information at the ready.

Hiden isn’t eligible for a vaccine, and won’t be for a while. But she wants to help others find their way through the tangle.

For that reason she created a Google document with step-by-step advice, and posted it in the Next Door online community. It’s kind of an Atlanta tradition, evidenced in the volunteer efforts during Snowmageddon in 2014 that gave rise to the crowd-sourced website SnowedOutAtlanta. (In March, social media was helping us find toilet paper and hand sanitizer.)

Hiden’s vaccine guide provides an explanation of who is eligible, with contact numbers and links for metro county health departments and a partial list of pharmacies and clinics that are also providing vaccines.

She also includes a “Good to Know” list of material to have ready when registering for an appointment, with useful tips. “I’d have a place to copy and paste from because you’ll likely have to do it repeatedly,” she writes.

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“There’s a technology issue going on here,” said Hiden in an interview. “For one, they expect people to know how to use the internet, and the secrets of being on the right browser and how to refresh and to be able to be on the computer all day long.” But for many of those in the 65-and-older target audience, “they’re just not good at it,” she said.

“On top of that, what about these people who don’t have access to the internet at all because of poverty? They’re the ones that need (access to vaccine) the most.” The AJC has not reviewed the document for accuracy, and some details bear explaining. For example, vaccines are free, but providers are allowed to charge up to $21.93 per shot to cover their costs. They must waive the fee if the patient can’t afford it. Also, patients experiencing adverse reactions should contact a health care provider.

Hiden also refers users to another citizen volunteer, Benjamin Warlick, a computer engineer who created a cloud-based program that will alert individuals when appointments are available in their county.

Benjamin Warlick developed a cloud-based program to provide alerts to those seeking a COVID-19 vaccine. Courtesy: Benjamin Warlick
Benjamin Warlick developed a cloud-based program to provide alerts to those seeking a COVID-19 vaccine. Courtesy: Benjamin Warlick

Credit: Benjamin Warlick

Credit: Benjamin Warlick

Warlick started as a patent attorney, then began brainstorming ways to easily access public information on government websites.

That led to the idea of using artificial intelligence to search public health websites to determine when vaccine appointments are available.

Users access the program by texting the word “Vax” to 678-679-0250. The program asks two questions -- county of residence and what “phase” the user is in. (In Georgia we are currently in the 1A phase, which means law enforcement officers, health care workers, other caregivers, people 65 and older and some other groups are eligible.)

It is a text-based program, said Warlick. which sends a text alert to the user’s smartphone. “I realized, people are overloaded with apps and emails.”

He began by writing a program for Fulton and DeKalb users, but expanded to Clayton, Gwinnett, Rockdale and Newton counties. As of Sunday, Jan. 17, he had more than 5,000 subscribers.

The Virginia-Highland resident is 41, and also won’t be eligible for a vaccination for a while, but he wanted to help out family and friends, particularly his mother-in-law, who couldn’t see her grandchildren without the vaccine.

“I was very much motivated to get my family back to a more normal state,” he said in an interview.

Margaret Hiden’s Google document can be accessed here:

In addition to helpful information, Hiden encourages considerate behavior. She writes:

“If you make multiple appointments (this is happening everywhere due to technical issues and people looking for every option available), PLEASE cancel the other appointment. Not only are you taking up one life saving spot, but the doses will go to waste.”

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