Vaccine hunters working to get seniors vaccinated

A Montgomery group run by teachers, known as ‘Vaccine Hunters,’ is building momentum as they help elderly residents book vaccine appointments.

SILVER SPRING, Md. — “I’m so happy, thank you God!”

Araceli San Sebastian could not contain her excitement on Thursday morning. The 84-year-old woman and her 90-year-old husband Marcelino walked out of White Oak Community Recreation with a layer of protection and a big sigh of relief.

“I got a lottery,” Marcelino said. “It’s a big one today. I feel 20 years younger.”

The elderly couple had been trying to get the first dose of the vaccine in Montgomery County, but a confusing online system and limited supply of the vaccine made it even more complicated. 

RELATED: Online vaccine registration is proving to be difficult for many Maryland families

They have kept themselves isolated for most of the pandemic. They changed their routine this week when their daughter-in-law Rebecca managed to snag a vaccine appointment online at a local medical center. However, the way the system is currently in place, it allows people who may not be eligible to register for an appointment. 

Rebecca brought her in-laws to an appointment she thought was valid, but was turned away because the facility was only accepting health care workers. 

“We heard it was only for medical workers the week before but I just assumed that since they got confirmation emails, they’d be set,” Rebecca said. “We showed up and we were turned away. I had this 90-year-old man in the snowy weather and he never leaves. I get their hopes up and pick them up in this horrible weather only to be told no.”

The family received help from an unlikely group of teachers who banded together to assist elderly citizens and non-English speaking residents in Montgomery County. The ladies dubbed themselves “vaccine hunters.” Since starting on Sunday, they have been able to connect 150 people to a vaccine appointment. 

The ladies have spent long nights reviewing different links to register, confirmed places that accept sign-ups and keep track of available appointments.

Founder Maisie Lynch spent part of her day at the White Oak recreational center to make sure the people who they booked were able to receive their doses.

“We really don’t want to send people up to a site if we haven’t confirmed that they’re taking people,” Lynch said. “We’ve had people at both sites this morning to verify the appointment for them.” 

Health officials admit the process is complicated, and many sign up incorrectly. A loophole in the system can allow people who are not eligible in certain places to sign up. 

The group has received inquiries from people out of state, and would eventually like to partner with a health care system. 

The county advises people to pre-register in order to receive a direct link from the health department on how to register. 

Montgomery County is currently in Phase 1B, which offers vaccines to people 75 and older. 

The number of first doses this week is roughly 5,500, but last week it was 8,600. The supply has been inconsistent because the previous week it was 7,000.

RELATED: Vaccine scarcity and rollout delays: Johns Hopkins experts break down the issues and how to move forward

RELATED: ‘I feel really helpless’ | Montgomery County seniors not able to get vaccinated due to shortages

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