Gene Davis was trying to get his parents a vaccine appointment. He called hospitals but found that he had outdated information about which facility was vaccinating and when. It was a lonely experience; how many others felt they existed in an information gap?
Before the county established its major hubs, Davis created a Facebook group called DFW Covid Vaccine Finder with a few friends to share information about vaccinations. He found that calling smaller pharmacies and providers in towns around Dallas was the most effective. Some locations, such as UT Health in Tyler or a pharmacy in Weatherford, were hosting first-come, first-serve sign up lists that opened at the beginning of the week. He shared what he was learning with the group. What began with just 30 people quickly ballooned to 500 members.
When the hubs were established, there was significant confusion regarding the sign up process and whether it was OK to share links. Soon came reports of ineligible residents trying to be vaccinated. It resulted in another feud between Mayor Eric Johnson and County Judge Clay Jenkins, though it seems that most of those early issues have been remedied. That confusion made it more difficult for those who were eligible for the vaccine to navigate the bureaucracy. This is where the group came in.
Members published questions, tips, and recorded their experiences at different locations. But with information changing quickly, it became increasingly difficult to moderate the group. No one wanted to give false hope to those who were paying attention, making them drive across town for a vaccine only to arrive and find that the location had run out. Also, plenty of people weren’t technically eligible for the vaccine. Davis said most of the people in the group toward the beginning were those in the 1B group who needed help finding it.
Then WFAA did a story on the group, and all of a sudden, there were 6,000 members. It quickly became too large for one person to manage. Davis was contacted by Jon Battle, a retired member of the group who had worked in IT for JC Penney, helping the company launch its website in the 90s. He offered to help run the group. “It was almost a perfect storm,” Battle says. “I have the time, I certainly have the skills, and I have the motivation. You can generate a lot of good things when those three things come together.”
Now, the group has more than 20,000 members. Its popularity shines a light on the lack of preparation and clear communication from those in charge of the vaccinations. These municipalities and organizations had eight months to set up a clear and effective system, making a group like this obsolete.
“That didn’t happen,” Battle says. “So everyone is scrambling to do it on their own.”
The group has had its difficulties. Battle and the other moderators are careful not to approve anything that is too hyperbolic or may scare people away from getting the vaccine. “The reason there are so many members is because of the lack of information that’s out there about what to do and where to go,” Battle says. “It’s extremely messy.”
Other sites are sprouting up to serve the same purpose. The CDC has endorsed vaccinespotter.org, but there are faults to a centralized vaccine finder. Providers don’t always report their inventory in the moment, so crowdsourcing provides an advantage. “These sites are only as good as the providers are giving them constantly updated data. And that’s not going to happen for a while,” Battle says.
Battle says that the group that 94 percent of members visit the site at least once a day. Members aren’t just getting their vaccine and abandoning the group. The group is seeing 200 to 300 posts a day, with multiples of that in the comments.
“It’s a group that wants to contribute and wants to help and wants to share their own experience,” Battle says.
Find the group here.