In recent weeks, Riverside County residents who are 65-plus or workers in certain essential fields have been told: “Get vaccinated!”
Ah, if the process were that easy.
All of a sudden, people were rushing to grab highly coveted vaccination appointments—which filled up within hours or even minutes of being released. Then various pharmacies started offering appointments, all with different online systems.
It was, in a word, a mess. Hopes of being free from the psychological pressure and serious health threats of the coronavirus had been supplanted by frustration, anger and helplessness resulting from hours spent trying to navigate poorly functioning appointment-scheduling websites.
Rhea Hoffman and Calista Vassios noticed this mess—and decided to fix it.
The result is Vaxie (www.vaxie.info), the brainchild of these self-described Coachella Valley partners in crime. It’s a free online “vaccine searcher” available to any Riverside County resident. In addition to the website, there is a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/vaxieinfo) that attracts a lot of traffic as well.
It all started simply enough, when Hoffman offered to help her parents book their vaccine appointments.
“After just searching and searching, I was frustrated, but I finally made the appointment,” said Hoffman, a teacher by trade, during a recent phone interview. “I work with a group of seniors helping them with Zoom (sessions), so I just asked them the next day, ‘Does anybody need help making an appointment?’ And I thought, ‘OK. A couple of people will raise their hands.’ But, like, half the class raised their hands. So I helped about 20 seniors in that class to make an appointment within the next week. And by that point, I got really, really good at figuring out how to do this.”
The first online-appointment tool, developed by Riverside County, was—and I say this based on personal experience—not very intuitive for users. Whenever a new batch of appointment slots were made available, the site would be overwhelmed and become sluggish, or crash entirely.
“Honestly, I realized I had to figure out how to do this without using the county (site), because it books up very quickly, and it’s a bit tricky,” Hoffman said. “I found, through a great deal of searching, that there are a lot of ways to make an appointment that don’t include using the county site. So from that point, I said: ‘You have this knowledge, and what you need to do is share it.’”
At that point, co-creator Vassios, who has a background in marketing, convinced Hoffman that they needed to “take this large scale, because people really need this,” Hoffman recounted.
“So (Vassios) made the website. She did the Facebook page, and we just started to grow bigger—and the people just kept coming. I went from making 30 appointments to making 100 appointments. Right now, I’m pushing (roughly) 275 appointments that I’ve made for people.”
In mid-February, local television outlets ran news segments about the ingenious appointment-making service—and more people came to find help, myself included.
“The people just started rolling in,” Hoffman confirmed. “We have a thousand followers on Facebook, and we have about 15,000 hits on Facebook. I don’t even know how many hits we’ve had on the website, because I don’t track that; Calista does. She’s the techie one. So I just do the hunting, and I monitor the Facebook page and (answer) all the questions that come in there. She monitors the website and the email—and it’s just turned into this massive undertaking over all of Riverside County.”
Hoffman said she’s elated at the number of people she and Vassios have been able to help.
“What’s amazing is that we probably have a 100 percent success rate,” Hoffman said. “If you qualify (to get vaccinated), we will find you an appointment, and we’ll probably be able to do it within 48 hours.”
Even if, as in my case, you don’t need Hoffman to personally book an appointment, because you can navigate the internet with some degree of dexterity, Vaxie is invaluable, because it aggregates links to the multiple corporate and governmental websites currently offering access to vaccinations.
“I think we have about 20 to 25 resources in Riverside County that have different ways (to book a vaccination appointment),” Hoffman said. “You can’t make an appointment (with them) through a county source. That list includes resources like Costco, Rite Aid, Walgreens, CVS and Kaiser. There’s so much out there that people just don’t know about.”
What drives this two-woman army to put in the long hours?
“I would say what really spurs us is that we are done with coronavirus,” Hoffman said. “We’re really done. We both have young children. We are barely surviving distance learning, and we would really like to go back into society. But more than that, it’s in our blood. Calista and I both feel that when you see a need, you fill it. And we both have a heart for the people in our community. So if we’re capable, we provide. We just do.”
Not only have Hoffman and Vassios helped people get vaccination appointments via Vaxie; they’ve helped people within their user community overcome the anguish, frustration and depression related to the scramble for life-saving vaccination slots.
“Everyone comes to us frustrated, because they have spent five hours not being successful, but we know how to be successful, and we try to take away that frustration,” Hoffman said. We say, ‘Tell us your age or your profession, and I’m going to give you two (resources) that were successful today. Or, we’re going to tell them to stop trying today, because on Tuesday, Costco is going to have an appointment drop. Just wait until then. And they’re going to wait—and it’s going to work.
“People are scared. Part of it is that we have to educate people to get rid of the notion that it’s impossible to make an appointment, and that you can’t get a vaccine. That’s what we’re hearing a lot in the media, but that’s not true. And they’re scared that they’re not going to get that second dose in time. … So when people come to us feeling frustrated, but see that the community thinks (Vaxie) works, people begin to think that this service might actually work for them.”
Hoffman also pointed out that not everyone has enough time to navigate the various tangle of vaccination-appointment sites.
“People who work in food service, like line cooks, waitresses, waiters and all those staff people—they are all people for whom time is money,” she said. “That’s where Vaxie.info steps in, because I have the luxury of time to sit here and do that work. … Me telling you that in five minutes, you can go (to this online link) and sign up now, because I just spent the last five hours looking for it, is a big deal for a line cook who can then say, ‘Excuse me, boss; I have to step away for a second.’ Then he can run to his phone and, say, sign up for the Curative vaccination program at the Palm Springs Convention Center. He’s grabbing that appointment because I just let him know.”
Hoffman said she and Vassios realize they’re able to help people with computer and a car—but that a large number of our neighbors don’t have computer and/or cars.
“In the Coachella Valley, there are people who don’t have those things and are just as deserving of the vaccine,” Hoffman said. “They need our help even more, but it takes money to help them. Often, people (who we have helped) are so grateful that they ask, ‘What can we do?’ We tell them that if they would like to help, they can pay it forward (with a donation or volunteer help), and someone else can be vaccinated.” Information on “paying it forward” can be made found via www.vaxie.info website.
Hoffman said they’re on the lookout for bilingual volunteers.
“We are definitely looking to see who could spend their days, or even just some set number of hours a week, doing this,” she said.
Hoffman said they have reached out to Dr. Rep. Raul Ruiz and his staff, but to date, they have not been able to connect.
“We would make perfect partners with him,” Hoffman said. “He is so great at educating about why the vaccines are effective. So, Dr. Ruiz explains why the vaccines are effective, and Vaxie steps in to help you make that vaccination appointment. We could work hand in hand very well.”
Vaxie is just one of many volunteer-run vaccine-aid efforts that have popped up around the country.
“This search has definitely become a national movement,” Hoffman said. “Calista has started networking with (other vaccine-assistance organizations), and we’ve actually created a new website that is in its infancy, but it’s going to grow: She’s creating a database per state of all of the websites that are doing what we are doing, and everything’s coming together to create a really beautiful cooperative across the nation of people searching for vaccines.”