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“One person said they had booked appointments for 20 friends from my tweets”: How this woman became a vaccine hunter extraordinaire

By Kelly Brown| Photography by Joshua Best
"One person said they had booked appointments for 20 friends from my tweets": How this woman became a vaccine hunter extraordinaire

Last March, Kelly Brown helped her elderly parents get vaccinations the day after eligibility opened up for people aged 70-plus in Ontario. Word got around to her parents’ friends and soon enough she was booking appointments for strangers. Brown then began posting hard-to-find information about clinics in neighbourhood parenting groups and started the Twitter account @TOVaccineFinder in April. Here’s how Brown became one of the city’s top vaccine hunters.

As told to Andrea Yu

“When Covid first appeared in Toronto, I was already on leave from my work as a bartender to care for my two kids, who were one and three years old at the time. I live with my husband, who is an operations manager for a high-end security installation company, and my parents, who are in their 70s, in a house in East York.

“I quickly fell into a routine of doomscrolling through the headlines. Thankfully, no one in our household got sick in the first or second waves. I was especially concerned about my parents, both due to their ages and because my father has pre-existing respiratory conditions. By March of 2021, I heard about vaccine eligibility opening up for people over 70. When I heard they would be eligible on March 27, I was determined to book them appointments. I was used to jostling for registration spots to get my oldest kid signed up for city programs, so I knew what to expect.

“Scheduling is supposed to open at 8 a.m., but sometimes it opens at 7:57 a.m., and by 8:03 a.m. the spots are all gone. So I went into the booking website 10 minutes early and kept refreshing the page until it opened. I was able to get them an appointment for the next day at a mass immunization clinic in Thorncliffe Park run by Michael Garron Hospital. I drove them to their appointment and cried happy tears when they were vaccinated.

“My parents told their friends how I helped them get a shot so quickly, and soon enough I was getting calls, text messages and emails asking for help booking appointments. Then I began getting messages from people I didn’t know—friends of my parents’ friends. The system was complicated because appointments weren’t all on one network, and those who didn’t have access to the internet spent hours on hold with the provincial booking line. Some of the people who contacted me only had landlines, not cellphones. A lot of the seniors were waiting to hear from their doctors about booking, or they booked through the provincial portal and got appointments for four to six weeks later. They didn’t know you could search through other health networks and teams for an earlier appointment.

“It was overwhelming for people, so I didn’t mind helping them. I knew how relieved they’d be to get an appointment, and they were so thankful for my help. Friends of my parents’ friends tried to get my address so they could send me gifts, but I declined their offers. One of them already knew where I lived, and they managed to drop off some champagne despite my protests. Some of my mother’s friends sent emails about how appreciative they were. My parents were happy and proud.

“I continued to book between five and 10 appointments a day for the next few weeks. I was spending two or three hours a day looking for appointments. I had a list of places I would check, mostly hospitals and city health units. Whenever I had a minute, I would go online and look at all the different portals and then scan their calendars to see what was available. This was possible when my kids were playing together, or when my parents were looking after them. I’ve also never needed much sleep. I don’t usually get to bed before 3 a.m. So I’d start looking at midnight for blocks of appointments that might have opened up. I think being a nighthawk is probably why I bartended for so long and why I could put so much time into vaccine hunting. 

“Word had spread among my friends and neighbours that I was helping people find vaccine appointments. So, around the middle of April, I started posting information in neighbourhood parenting groups on Facebook, like East Toronto Your Modern Village and East End Wranglers, about all the different places people could get vaccinated in the area. After I started posting on Facebook, people would DM me for help. By that point I was booking anywhere from 20 to 30 people a day.

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“One time, someone in one of the parenting Facebook groups reached out to say they knew a refugee family in the Niagara region that had just arrived but did not have health cards. I tried to book them in Niagara but there was nothing available for weeks. There were also complications about whether they would get their vaccine if they showed up without a health card, and they didn’t want to chance it. After I reached out to some health care workers, someone sent me info for Regent Park’s Community Health Centre’s low-barrier clinic. There were barely any clinics like this at the time—it was somewhat of a trailblazer in terms of accessibility and equity. They were accepting refugees, so I sent that information along and the family drove to Toronto that weekend. Everyone who was old enough got their vaccine.

In early April, I started a Twitter account called @TOVaccineFinder. I didn’t post there much until early May, when eligibility really started opening up. One day, in the middle of May, I found a Facebook post from someone who had been vaccinated at a clinic at the Ontario Food Terminal that wasn’t busy. I did a quick search on the socials and found two more reports that corroborated it. Initially, the clinic was just for food terminal workers. But a few days later they opened it up to everyone in the GTA, so the nurse told the patients to get the word out. I called the food terminal to confirm that the clinic was happening and that their eligibility was open. I tweeted it out, and by the next day, more than 20,000 people had seen the post. People commented they were heading over to see if it was true, and then they tweeted photos of themselves after they got vaccinated.

“The wonderful people at Vaccine Hunters Ontario retweeted my post, and I went from a couple of hundred followers to more than 2,000 followers that week. I just kept growing from there. I felt honoured they had even noticed my tweets. They soon began to retweet me on a daily basis, which helped Torontonians see what I was posting. Unfortunately I never worked directly with Vaccine Hunters Canada because they already had so many volunteers, and I enjoyed having a smaller and more manageable base that could share a lot of crowdsourced information. But I think they are absolutely phenomenal at what they do, and I believe they’ve helped millions upon millions of Canadians get vaccinated.

“At this point, I was also helping many people via DM. One man who contacted me had his mother visiting from India, but she had to return immediately to care for a family member. It was during India’s Covid surge, so they were desperate to get her a second dose. I scoured the web and the world of Twitter and found them a clinic where she could get vaccinated.

“While Twitter was ramping up, the need had grown so big that I knew it was time for help on the Facebook end. I began to notice some other people starting to post about vaccines in the Facebook groups. I reached out to some of them about working together to help people find appointments. We quickly formed this underground vaccine-booking team, finding appointments for people all over Ontario. We started on Facebook Messenger, then soon moved to Discord to organize ourselves. There are nine of us in the group, and we’re all moms. Someone will reach out to one of us and say, ‘I’m looking for an appointment for a person this age, or someone who has this condition, or has this eligibility.’ We all scatter and see what we can find, then we’ll send them all the hits that we get. We call ourselves the VaxTeam.

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“We have become a well-oiled machine. When someone in the group posts a request, we’ll often come back in minutes with different options. Everyone has different strengths. A few of us know everything about the policies and ever-changing eligibilities, while a few can find cancellation spots at all hours. We call one of them the Queen of Walmart—it doesn’t matter where in Ontario a person needs an appointment, she will find them one at a nearby Walmart within that week without fail. On top of all that the team does, we’ve become a great group of friends. Almost all of us were strangers before and had never even seen each other’s faces and now we have this little family.

“Things have gotten busy again since booster shots have become available and kids can get vaccinated. I’m posting about six to 10 tweets a day. I start my day going through the portals and their calendars as well as looking for pop-ups. I’ll search social media for keywords like ‘vaccine clinic’ and ‘boosters’ and I filter for results close to me in Toronto. I also follow all of the main health units, hospitals and family health team, plus @lunchquotes, who often has great intel. If any of them post something about a clinic or new appointments, I retweet it. If I discover a block of available appointments that hasn’t been posted anywhere, I’ll write up a tweet so they can all be booked.

“I’m hoping that by February, things will get better with Omicron and I’ll be able to send my kids back to pre-school and school so I can work full-time again. I’m not going back to bartending, though. I can’t work those late hours anymore and be energized to get up with the kids. But my vaccine-hunting has led me to a new job opportunity. At the end of last summer, the real estate agent who helped us buy our house with my parents posted on her personal account asking for leads on where to get vaccinated. I messaged her and got her an appointment. She found out about the work I was doing and, after going out for lunch together, she offered me a job at her office. I will help with social media, organizing community events and researching those hard-to-find listings not always found on MLS. I’m starting out at just a few hours a week, but I’ll go full-time once the kids are both in school and Covid isn’t such a high risk for my parents.

“I love doing this work. When people send me a photo or report back that they got their shot, I’m truly happy for them. I wanted to figure out a way to give people a much-needed sense of relief, to help prevent severe illness and deaths, and help ease the burden on the health care system. Helping get people vaccinated was the best way I could do that, and it gives me a real feeling of hope when everything else is uncertain and scary. I feel lucky and honoured that people ask me to help them.

“I was asked by a family member recently how many people I’ve helped vaccinate, and it’s really hard to say. Thousands? Maybe tens of thousands? I don’t think I’ll ever know. A few of my tweets have gotten 70,000 impressions; thousands of people have clicked links to blocks of appointments that I’ve found and, as a result, they were booked up in minutes. People say my tweets helped them get to clinics they wouldn’t have known about otherwise, or that they were able to book last-minute appointments quickly. I’ve received so many nice messages and tweets from people thanking me for my work. One person said they had booked appointments for 20 friends strictly from my tweets. Someone who I helped get vaccinated in the beginning became a vax hunter once they got their shot. They started translating my tweets for their Taiwanese friends and coworkers and in turn got them booked. They did this again for the second and third doses. I’ve heard of people from as far as Barrie driving down to Toronto to get vaccines based on my tweets.

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“I would guess I spend around four to six hours a day searching for clinics, posting on social media and helping individuals find specific vaccine appointments through Twitter and through our Discord group, which is still active today. I’m sure my family would tell you that I was spending too much time doing it, but I think it’s been good for me. If I wasn’t doing it, I would be worrying, or I’d be doomscrolling through the headlines. It’s a good distraction. I much prefer using my time to help people get vaccinated.”

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