Vaccine hunters power up social media to find appointment spots for folks seeking COVID shots

Without a centralized booking tool for COVID-19 vaccine appointments in Alberta, some Edmontonians are taking it on themselves to find and book appointments for others.

Centralized booking tool touted as an answer but one expert cites drawbacks

As of Saturday, 1,398,673 vaccine doses had been administered in Alberta. (The Canadian Press)

Janaya Matheson knows where to look. 

She's booked COVID-19 vaccine appointments for more than 50 people in Alberta. Some are friends or family but many are strangers. 

"Lots of people have messaged me on Twitter and don't even know where to look for a pharmacy appointment," said the Edmonton stay-at-home mother behind the VaxHunterAB Twitter account. 

Since joining Twitter in April, the account has shared information on available appointments and Matheson uses the information to help people find spots to get their shot.

"They are waiting for their local pharmacy to call them and their local pharmacy hasn't received supplies," she said. "So then they're waiting and waiting and waiting when they could have an appointment tomorrow."

Sarah Mackey (left) and Janaya Matheson volunteer their time to finding and sharing information on vaccine appointment availability to Albertans. (CBC News/Submitted)

She's part of a growing number of volunteers across the country who are searching for the soonest vaccine appointments for strangers. 

Like most Canadian provinces, Alberta doesn't have a centralized vaccine appointment booking system that lists all of the available appointments at pharmacies, Alberta Health Services (AHS) immunization sites and doctor's offices.

The booking process

Instead, people who are eligible to be immunized are finding appointments in a variety of ways: registering at their local pharmacy, booking by phone through Health Link or booking online on the AHS website. 

"With AstraZeneca, it's like trying to buy a Tickle Me Elmo doll where you just have to call around and hope that you find someone that has it in stock," said Edmontonian Sarah Mackey, who helps people find vaccine appointments on top of her full-time job with a non-profit organization.

She doesn't understand why it has to be this way.

"We're just sort of building the plane while we're flying, which was always going to be somewhat the case because this is such a swiftly developing situation. But we had known for months that this was happening and there's just not really a good excuse for why it's so haphazard." 

According to Alberta Health, the province is using the same approach it uses for flu shots and other vaccines.

"We continue to look for ways to expand and streamline the vaccine rollout, including strengthening the booking process in the future," spokesperson Tom McMillan said in an email.

Social media, including Matheson's Twitter account and Vaccine Hunters Canada, are playing a role in helping people learn when and where they can get a vaccine. 

Establishing a system

However, building a centralized system for vaccine appointments wouldn't be a fast, simple or cheap process, said Abram Hindle, an associate professor of computing science at the University of Alberta.

"It's a really expensive endeavour, especially given the heavily privatized nature of pharmacies in Alberta," he said.

"Even if you provide it, there's no guarantee that the pharmacies could hook into it because it's not like they're software developers. They purchase the product and it might not connect very well. So it's a really tough problem and you have to do it ahead of time."

A centralized booking system, he added, could take up to a year to develop.

Hindle and Mackey agree that online booking can pose a barrier to people who may not have access to reliable internet or don't know where to look for booking information.

"Your ability to get a vaccine shouldn't depend on who you happen to know or where you happen to get your information," said Mackey. 

"It just seems so silly to me that we didn't have a better system set up in advance."


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