Laura Catoe has gotten really good at snagging vaccine appointments for folks having trouble doing it themselves. Anyone 16 or older in Texas has been eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine for a few weeks now, but finding an appointment to get a shot hasn’t gotten much easier.
Catoe is a volunteer appointment booker with Kendra COVID Coaches, a group in Central Texas that helps people get vaccinated. Folks fill out a form online and people like Catoe hunt down a spot for them. Catoe says she has a whole system at this point.
“It’s a constant dialogue of who, what, when, where why and how,” she says.
Catoe has figured out a couple of reliable places for appointments.
Providers like Austin Public Health and UT Austin have their own waitlists, so she has less control over booking. Instead, she scans the websites of the many stores and pharmacies allocated doses.
She says one of the places she starts is Walmart. The chain is statewide, so she’s been able to help a lot of people get appointments there. CVS is sometimes a good option, too.
“I typically like to book CVS if I am up at the random hours that CVS decides to drop appointments,” Catoe says.
That sometimes means being awake at around 4 or 5 a.m.
And then there’s the real wildcard, Catoe says: H-E-B.
“We kind of refer to it as taking a trip to Las Vegas,” she says. “You feel like you are playing slots. You constantly hit refresh until an appointment pops up and then you scramble to select the time before anybody else does.”
Catoe has helped hundreds of people get vaccinated by navigating this system — and she’s been doing it for free, like many other people in Austin.
Austin Vaccine Angels has about 30 to 50 active volunteers at any one time. Founder Jodi Holzband told KUT that about 100 people have volunteered since February. As a result, the group has booked almost 3,500 appointments and helped 4,000 people so far.
Kendra Wright started helping people get appointments in early January. At the time, she had just gotten vaccinated, so she could visit her dad in a nursing home.
“I got a real feeling of a weight lifted that I didn’t even know I had,” Wright says. “I asked a few friends if they wanted me to help them get vaccinated. And I helped a few, and then a few more.”
Eventually, Wright says, she got really good at it and was enjoying helping people. So, she offered her services in a Facebook post.
“That’s actually just the way it started, was just me putting a post up,” Wright says. “Then what happened was volunteers just came out of the woodwork.”
Now, Kendra COVID Coaches has almost 70 volunteers. Wright says they’re all over the Austin area, working long hours to help people.
Nathalie Gould, one of the volunteers, trains people to book appointments and helps those who are already technologically savvy figure out how to do things themselves.
But Gould says the group’s main focus remains helping the underserved get appointments.
“You know, we do have kind of a special place for essential workers, frontline workers, health care [workers], teachers,” she says. “Some of these people have struggles being able to access technology during the day.”
Gould says it’s also really important to help older people who may face technological barriers. And finding an appointment can take a lot of time — regardless of age. Many people have busy schedules or multiple jobs.
“If you have zero knowledge of the processes that are in place it could take you a very long time,” she says. “And it’s very daunting because — ‘What waitlist do you get on? What store do you go
The volunteers are a big help to a lot of people who just don’t have the bandwidth to figure out the process. Wright says she’s been focusing her efforts lately on helping restaurant workers and musicians here.
“A lot of those frontline workers who just can’t sit at their computer and hit refresh all day, we are able to do that for them and help them get vaccinated,” she says.
Wright says her group is also doing a lot of outreach because those early priority groups — like people over 65 — still aren’t all vaccinated.
Ultimately, groups like the Kendra COVID Coaches and Austin Vaccine Angels are problem-solving for what is a complicated but super important project: getting people vaccinated as quickly as possible.
“It’s provided hope for people,” Wright says. “A lot of people have just struggled and been tearing their hair out to find vaccines. And then when we come in and say, ‘Hey, we will help you. We are just volunteers and we want you to feel the same sense of relief that we felt when we got vaccines.’ People have just responded.”
The volunteers say they’ve also gotten a lot personally out of this work.
Catoe says she’s been able to provide joy and relief as she finds people appointments.
“It’s a nice sign to see … that you have a group of strangers who are all working to help other strangers,” she says, “with really nothing desired in return other than the knowledge that you have been able to help someone and change their life — and perhaps even save it.”