Shanti Shahani de Venegas was one of millions of Texans who struggled to stay warm through last week’s winter storm. On the night of February 15, the Plano resident kept logs burning in the fireplace as her family slept. Between poking at the embers, she stayed busy in her fight against the other ongoing crisis: the pandemic that has killed more than 40,000 Texans. Using the wireless hotspot from her phone and an external battery to keep it charged, she scoured the web for vaccine appointments. By the time her battery died at 4 a.m., she’d been able to sign up more than thirty people to get their shots. Shahani de Venegas said her decision to work through the night was twofold: The first reason was that she simply needed something to keep her awake. The second was that Walmart posts its appointments a week in advance. “I thought I should get their appointments now so they can make it to an appointment next week, after this weather has gone away,” she says.
Armed with little more than a laptop, her phone, and the internet, Shahani de Venegas has spent the past few weeks poring over allocation lists and dozens of websites for COVID-19 vaccine providers. Before the storm hit, she’d registered at least two hundred Texans for vaccine appointments, and that was before several other women agreed to help. On Valentine’s Day, as Texans prepared for the imminent arrival of the polar vortex, she and four volunteers—Liliana Marquez, Roshni Patel, Sarel Molina, and Mary Tang—met on Zoom to organize their growing list of seniors and those with qualifying health conditions. Shahani de Venegas said she and her volunteers have never met most of the people on that list; they came to her through word of mouth and Facebook.
These North Texas women aren’t alone. Using social media, people across the state are volunteering their time and digital expertise to help others navigate the complicated and confusing web of allocation lists, websites, phone numbers, and seemingly endless waiting lists that make up Texas’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan. In Austin, seventy-year-old retiree Barbara Ritchie organized a group she refers to as “Scheduling Angels” via Nextdoor, an app better known for gossip among neighbors. During the pandemic, the site has become a powerful organizing tool. Ritchie says about ten volunteers are helping her register people who have struggled to find appointments due to high demand, language barriers, or lack of internet know-how. Angie Hentrich, an Austin resident who has helped more than one hundred people register for vaccine appointments while her toddler sleeps, likened the experience to reserving concert tickets for a high-demand music festival such as Austin City Limits. “Like when a concert goes on sale, you kind of have to jump on it as fast as you can before it sells out,” she says. “By the time someone tells you about it, they’re probably gone.”
For those most urgently in need of the vaccine—the health care workers, elderly, and immunocompromised people who make up Phase 1A and Phase 1B—the time-consuming research process and the quick reflexes required to book an appointment can be especially difficult. Before she started booking appointments for strangers, Shahani de Venegas was able to schedule appointments for both herself and her husband, both of whom are eligible for the vaccine in the 1B category. She says not everyone in Phase 1B is capable of meeting the demands that booking an appointment in a competitive market requires. “You have to be fast,” she says. “Thankfully, I am quite technologically adept.” To help solve this problem, many of Ritchie’s “scheduling angels” are focusing their efforts on the elderly, whose digital skills may be less than sufficient to book an appointment. “They don’t know some of these really annoying tricks like hitting enter for an hour” or frequently refreshing a page, Ritchie notes. “What 85-year-old person wants to do that or knows to do that?” Another of Ritchie’s volunteers focuses on providing help to Spanish speakers, some of whom are struggling to book appointments due to a lack of instructions in Spanish.
Ritchie says her main motivator was the desperation her neighbors expressed in online threads, but she also felt a personal calling to the work: her 92-year-old mother died last month after a battle with COVID-19, which she contracted in a Colorado nursing home. “Because of COVID, we weren’t able to see her for ten months. I went to visit, but I had to talk to her through a fence,” she says. “I know many, many families have lost loved ones and had to say goodbye to them through a computer screen, so I understand how painful it is.”
In a Facebook Live video, another Plano resident, Rebecca Lowrey, said: “If you want the vaccine, it’s your job to get the vaccine.” Lowrey has posted information about vaccine distribution and appointment availability in DFW COVID Vaccine Finder, a Facebook group devoted to helping North Texans find vaccine appointments. Other groups are helping people statewide and near Houston. Lowrey told me those who are successful at nabbing appointments are actively checking multiple websites and social media, rather than passively waiting on a list. Shahani de Venegas saw Lowrey’s video and thought, “She’s right. I’m gonna make this my job.” At the beginning of February, she began spending several hours each day researching and booking appointments for friends of friends, her husband’s coworkers, and even one of her son’s teachers. As word of mouth spread, she started booking appointments for strangers too. With nearly two million eligible Texans in Phase 1A and eight million in Phase 1B, with an unknown amount of overlap, she doesn’t expect there will be a lack of demand anytime soon. As the winter storm subsides in Texas, Shahani de Venegas said the need for assistance will only increase, as missed appointments need to be rescheduled and an influx of stored doses need to be distributed. As Lowrey puts it: “If you want a vaccine, you deserve a vaccine. Any arm is better than the trash.”
Shanhani de Venegas said she’s received thanks and praise, flowers, invitations to dinner, and even offers for her to ride out the power outages in the houses of those she’s helped. She said she has declined them all. “I told them, ‘No, you don’t understand. This is not why I’m doing this. To me, this is a mental health issue. I cannot take any more bad news. I need to be able to say I’m doing something to change this,” she says. “Ultimately, I want to end this.”