Michiganders turn to online 'Vaccine Hunter' groups to track down COVID vaccines

Posted at 5:00 PM, Feb 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-16 17:00:10-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — As the vaccine rollout slowly continues, some people are turning to social media for help getting appointments for their shot.

“Vaccine Hunter" Facebook pages have been popping up all over the country.

The creator of one of these pages tells FOX 17 that what started as a way for people to score spare doses has transformed into connecting eligible people with vaccinations.

“It’s growing very rapidly,” said Katie Monaghan, talking about the page she started, Detroit Area Vaccine Hunters.

Monaghan started the Facebook page four days ago after seeing similar groups pop up online but none for the Detroit region. The group has nearly 300 members in that short time.

Members come to the group looking for vaccine information or appointments for either themselves or loved ones. Many members just want to be a source for helpful information.

“People are coming to the page at their wits end, they have tried everything," Monaghan said. "They are eligible, and they can’t find a vaccine dose.”

The Detroit area page is just one of many all over the country. There’s also a Midwest Vaccine Hunter’s page that has people posting from Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, even as far away as Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Many members in that group indicate that they are willing to cross state lines to get vaccinated.

“The name ‘vaccine hunters' kind of makes it sound like ineligible people are hunting out these vaccines, but really right now, it’s more about helping eligible people find vaccines,” Monaghan explained. "You still have to hunt for vaccines, even if you are eligible."

The original purpose of these groups was to track down spare doses before they expire when a pharmacy or health department doesn’t use all of theirs.

Mary Wisinski, a registered nurse and the immunization program supervisor at the Kent County Health Department, explained that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have a short shelf life once they are thawed out and divided out into doses.

“Once the doses are out in room area, you only have a six hours," she said. "So you are in a time crunch.”

It’s not terribly uncommon to get extra doses in the vials delivered by the state, Wisinki said, adding that medical personnel have a way to handle it when it happens. “Pfizer has five doses in a multi-dose vial, sometimes you get six. Moderna has 10, sometimes you get 11. In the middle of the afternoon, we really closely monitor the number of appointments we have left versus the number of doses that we have drawn up, so sometimes it’s two doses, sometimes it’s three. And then we look at the people on our list and see who we can call to come in for those extra doses.”

Some vaccine hunter groups have been criticized for jumping the line when people camp out outside a health department or pharmacy for the chance to get a dose that might otherwise get thrown out.

Wisinski said the health department has not wasted one dose, and they’re able to find people on a standby list if people don’t show up for their appointments.

“We don’t want to develop a culture of people hanging around the door who are hoping to get in at the last minute for extra doses,” she said.

However, that’s not what Monaghan said most people in their group are looking for, and these pages have shifted purpose over time. “There’s a lot of people that are not eligible, like myself, that enjoy going on there and helping maybe somebody who’s not very savvy with computers or isn’t familiar with how to search different Rite Aid locations,” she said. "So even though we're not eligible yet, it feels good to help people that are eligible."

Monaghan said it’s all about crowd-sourcing information and helping those who need it.

“I think everybody would agree that they would rather have a shot go into an arm rather than the trash,” she said, “We would prefer for those to go into currently qualified people.”