How an army of volunteers inoculated Ontario

The Happy Hunters

The Vaccine Hunters are teachers, photographers, engineers, retirees. They’re as young as 19 and as old as 90. Over the past year, they spent countless hours navigating hospital websites, printing out flyers and knocking on doors. And they helped more than a million people book Covid vaccine appointments

By Jason McBride| Photography by Daniel Ehrenworth | Hair and makeup by Ashley Readings at Plutino Group
| November 17, 2021

Pictured above: Sabrina Craig and Andrew Young, co-directors of Vaccine Hunters Canada

 

Last March, a 33-year-old Toronto-based web developer named Andrew Young set out to book a Covid vaccine appointment for his father, Mario. Like most people, Young was thrilled by the prospect. After the long purgatory of the pandemic, here, at last, was a life-saving vaccine—a few different ones, in fact—that had been developed in an impressively short time and proven extremely effective. Covid could be stopped. Mario, who is 75, and Young’s mother, 68-year-old Yukuen, could be safe.

How an army of volunteers inoculated Ontario

And yet also like most people, Young immediately ran into problems. The vaccine supply in Canada was maddeningly inconsistent: one week, a shipment of Pfizer would be delayed; the following week, it would be Moderna. Different hospitals had different eligibility criteria, as did different public health units. Ontario lagged weeks behind other provinces in getting first doses to seniors and, when the population as a whole was finally eligible, it required both a lottery winner’s luck and a project manager’s organizational skills to figure out where and when you could get a shot. The province’s befuddling, temperamental online booking system often resembled a choose-your-own-adventure game where every choice seemed to be a dead end. The excitement and hope generated by the arrival of the vaccines gave way to anger around their deployment. As of early February, only 344,615 doses had been administered in Ontario and one million across Canada. In the U.S., despite the foul cloud of Covid denial, 26.5 million doses had been given out by then.

Most of us saw this unfold and went back to bed, hoping someone else would figure things out. Young took matters into his own hands. He created a computer script that would automatically check the websites of hospitals near his parents’ home so he’d immediately know when they updated their eligibility criteria and appointment information. It was a relatively easy way to cut through the chaos of the rollout, but it was also the kind of thing Young likes to do for fun. When he was 10, he created his first website—dedicated to Pokémon—and a few years later, built his high school’s official website (which he maintains to this day). At Ryerson, he studied business and technology management, and he currently works for the university as a web developer. On weekends, still, one of his favourite pastimes is playing with code.

The hospital script worked. A couple of weeks later, on March 19, Young had, to his great relief, booked his dad’s first appointment at Sunnybrook. Even then, demand was so high that the booking system crashed, and Young wasn’t certain his dad’s appointment had registered until Mario got a confirmation call the next day. Young snagged Yukuen an appointment the following week at a Scarborough Health Network clinic.

How an army of volunteers inoculated Ontario

Young knew there were many others in the same boat, and that the boat was quickly filling up with water. Lurking on Reddit, he’d come across the name of an American group called Vaccine Hunters, which tracked vaccination sites with leftover doses. He had a hunch, and bought the domain name Vaccine Hunters Canada. The same day he secured his dad’s appointment, he created Vaccine Hunters Canada social media accounts, one on Twitter and one on Discord, a group-chat app popular with gamers. When his script sent updates, he used the accounts to broadcast that vaccine information. “At first, it was slow,” Young says. “Just me, annoying my social network, posting hospital updates.” But he also received grateful replies from people saying that, thanks to his posts, they too had been able to get their parents booked. Young kept it up, and expanded his script to include hospitals in Durham and Peel regions.

Other people quickly joined him, posting vaccine availability on their social networks. In February, a 25-year-old technical analyst at BMO named Sabrina Craig had created a vision board where she listed goals for herself with various headings: “Travel,” “Mind,” “Body.” Under “Global,” she wrote “Volunteer—vaccine?” Her parents were both immunocompromised, and she had lots of friends who were front-line workers. Getting them, and herself, vaccinated as quickly as possible was of paramount concern. She thought at first that maybe she could just set up pylons at a clinic or something. But after coming across the Vaccine Hunters Twitter feed, it occurred to her that pharmacies were going to be key to the rollout: having vaccines easily accessible, and given by a trusted source, was a great motivator. So she started gathering information from pharmacy websites and persistently DMing those tips to Vaccine Hunters.

Vaccine Hunters soon evolved into a fully fledged volunteer organization. By mid-April, Craig had officially partnered with Young as a co-director, along with a teacher named Jonathan Clodman and a software developer named Joshua Kalpin. In a matter of weeks, the organization swelled from a handful of volunteers to a collective of more than 100, with local contributors all across the country from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. These mostly anonymous volunteers, armed only with computers, phones and social media accounts—plus an overwhelming, uncommon level of community spirit—tracked down vaccine appointments nation-wide. In addition to its Twitter and Discord accounts, Vaccine Hunters was also on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. At its peak, the organization had about 427,000 followers across its platforms. Volunteers answered questions about eligibility and safety, but most importantly, they chased down, in real time, the elusive whereabouts of vaccine doses. In an era of misinformation, disinformation and outright lack of information, the organization was a badly needed beacon of clarity. The founders estimate they helped some 1.2 million Canadians find vaccine doses.

How an army of volunteers inoculated Ontario

Young personally booked thousands of appointments. Some people referred to him as Batman. But he was insistent from the beginning that he wouldn’t be the face of the organization. His own parents didn’t even know he’d created it until they started reading news stories about the group. He was especially insistent that volunteers take the lead in their own areas of expertise. Someone like Craig, for example, who had quickly become knowledgeable about pharmacies, would help organize that team; a capable computer scientist, say, would help with software development projects.

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He knew that humility was key to Vaccine Hunters’ success. It only worked if people subsumed themselves into a larger whole, if they temporarily gave up their individual needs and wants for the sake of the greater good. In a major crisis—natural disasters, war—human beings often organize, sacrifice and behave altruistically. This was largely true in the pandemic, too. There were countless acts of kindness, generosity and solidarity: community fridges, caremongering, free front-porch concerts, volunteer mask-making. Vaccine Hunters took all this benevolence and scaled it up—gloriously, heroically. As we all individually stumbled through the pandemic, they showed what we could achieve when we came together.

The Vaccine Hunters were scattered across the country. They came from every background, with skill sets of comparable diversity: teachers, students, coders, financial people, former models, translators, doctors. Nobody received a salary or any kind of payment at all. Even when the organization became successful, and the media took notice, and people started offering donations, Young refused to take a penny, directing all offers of financial aid toward Frontline Fund, a charity that benefits health care workers. He and all the other directors kept their day jobs.

How an army of volunteers inoculated Ontario

Many Vaccine Hunters joined out of self-interest—they just wanted to find vaccines for themselves and their families as quickly as possible—but most stayed on and continued to help out because the work was so fulfilling. The pandemic had atomized the entire world, cutting us off from family, work, school, everything. It made us feel impotent and hopeless. But here was a way to reunite with people, with absolute strangers in most cases, while also helping to rid the planet of the thing that divided us. Volunteers say it gave them a sense of agency, of purpose, and an adrenalin rush. Nobody met in person, not even the directors, but over Zoom and Slack and DMs, the Vaccine Hunters became a profoundly tight-knit community. “I used to think of the internet as something that separates us,” says one volunteer, a 32-year-old actuary named Talia Pankewycz. “Vaccine Hunters has shown how people and the internet can come together for good.”

Of course, the volunteers were only able to do everything they did because the federal government had procured an overwhelming vaccine supply. Despite the sluggish start and the two-steps-forward-one-step-back rollout, Canada had signed contracts with seven different vaccine makers, with the option to purchase more than 400 million doses. Because nobody knew which vaccine would work best, or which company would get there first, the government struck deals with a whole slew of them, gambling on the possible triumph of the new kids on the block, the mRNA vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer. “Most people thought those were a long shot,” says Alan Bernstein, president and CEO of CIFAR, a Canadian-based global research organization, and a member of Ontario’s Covid-19 Vaccine Task Force. “They had never been tried before. And look where we are now. Diversifying was the right thing to do.” Unlike citizens of some other countries, most Canadians were also very eager to get vaccinated. “We’re a pretty cohesive society, fortunately,” says Bernstein. “And we lined up to receive these vaccines with little hesitation.”

The name, Vaccine Hunters, has a sexy, adventurous ring, but the work itself was mundane and monotonous—essentially trawling websites and news releases, setting up alerts, and contacting clinics, doctors and pharmacies, over and over and over. For many volunteers, vaccine hunting became a second full-time job that they squeezed into their lunch breaks, after dinner, before they went to bed. One volunteer I spoke to, a 30-year-old doctoral student at York named Adrienne Gagnon, usually spent five to nine hours a day on Discord. At one point, she was contacted by someone who was about to start chemo and desperately needed an accelerated dose of AstraZeneca. While another team member combed the Vaccine Hunters inbox searching for pharmacies with a decent supply of AZ, Gagnon and yet another volunteer spent several hours calling pharmacies before they found one that had a spare shot. She has no idea how many people she helped in total, but she guesses she booked appointments for about 150 people.

How an army of volunteers inoculated Ontario

The pandemic exposed all kinds of inequity, which the Vaccine Hunters did their best to alleviate. They helped the young and the old, the affluent and the unhoused, people who were high risk and those in the pink of health, people who were afraid of needles and people who were afraid of nothing. They even helped out the occasional celebrity. In March, the actor Jean Yoon, star of Kim’s Convenience, was scrambling to get shots for herself and her family. “The provincial vaccine rollout was so haphazard and disorganized,” Yoon says. “It was like whack-a-mole.” Through the Vaccine Hunters Twitter feed, however, she found an appointment in the northern part of the city and became one of the first people she knew to get vaccinated. Later, her teenage son started following Vaccine Hunters, and he and his friends began running around town trying to locate leftover doses for people before they were thrown out at the end of the day. Yoon tweeted about Vaccine Hunters: “They’re one of the heroes of this crisis.”

Vaccine Hunters also maintained an email address so that people who weren’t on social media could obtain information about available doses. Maria Powell, a 56-year-old retired teacher in Barrie, became the point person for this in late April, ultimately answering, she estimates, at least 2,000 emails. After a while, because the same questions kept coming up, she created 61 email templates to accelerate her response time. Not surprisingly, many of the questions came from seniors, some of whom were barely capable of using email. “There were a lot of people who were really panicked,” Powell says, “and they just didn’t understand.”

Their heartbreaking messages were a stark illustration of how confusing the rollout was, but also of how dependent it was on a certain level of tech literacy. There were emails that consisted of a single word: HELP or WHERE. In others, correspondents wrote their entire email in the subject line, or divulged their mailing addresses and medical history, complete with health card numbers. Powell didn’t just answer questions but also booked several appointments. One person emailed on behalf of his friend, who couldn’t use a computer because of a brain injury. Powell and the friend ended up talking on the phone, and she called several pharmacies for him, trying to find a place within walking distance, because he couldn’t drive. After seniors, the next panic, as Powell put it, involved teens with special needs, and she assisted those families too. The whole experience was emotional for both Powell and the people she helped: she felt the sharp sting of their fear and the overwhelming wave of their gratitude. “People would say, ‘You’re in my prayers tonight,’ or, ‘History will talk about you.’ They were so over-the-top appreciative. They’d say, ‘I’m sorry my grammar’s so bad, but I’m crying because I’m so grateful.’ ”

How an army of volunteers inoculated Ontario

It occurred to another vax hunter, a 41-year-old food photographer named Jodi Pudge, that there were still others who weren’t even able to access email—not to mention Torontonians who don’t speak English, or work long hours, or maybe don’t own a computer or smartphone. So, when Pudge heard about a pop-up clinic in Regent Park, she published tweets translated into several languages and printed up a bunch of flyers. She spent the next couple of days passing them out and posting them all over the St. Lawrence Market and Corktown neighbourhoods. She stood outside grocery stores and made announcements to people standing in line there. Grateful restaurant owners gave her free food, or offered her tea. “It reminded me of the importance of community,” Pudge says, “at a time when everyone is individually struggling.”

A vax hunter named Wendy Tao, who works in advertising, joined forces with Pudge and helped translate her tweets into Mandarin. She then printed out PDFs of flyers from other pop-up clinics and, like Pudge, roamed around neighbourhoods like the Distillery and the Esplanade, handing them out. Tao helped dozens of people directly, too. One east-ender in her mid-30s met Tao on the Vaccine Hunters Discord. She had numerous health issues that prevented her from spending much time in front of a computer screen or standing in line for a vaccine. She also lived in a hotspot where vaccine supply was unreliable. “I was stuck online, hitting refresh, refresh, refresh and not getting anywhere,” she says. Tao got her on a waiting list, then advised her exactly when and where doses were dropping so she wouldn’t spend fruitless, stressful time online. The woman got her first dose by early May, and someone on the Discord—not an official Vaccine Hunter—booked her second appointment when her illnesses prevented her from doing so.

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I got a glimpse of how quick and efficient Tao was as a Vaccine Hunter. After I asked her to put me in touch with some people she’d helped, she got back to me in 20 minutes with a list of several names, their back stories and contact info. One of them was a graphic designer named Jennifer Yim, who was trying to figure out when her grandmother could get her second dose. Her grandmother lived in Toronto Community Housing, and had received her first dose from a mobile UHN clinic that came to her building. But confusion around when the second shot would arrive had become a source of panic. Yim’s grandmother refused to leave her unit, terrified she’d miss her opportunity. Yim called TCH and 311 repeatedly, getting nowhere. But she’d also been following Vaccine Hunters on Twitter (booking, with their guidance, shots for about two dozen friends and family) and on Discord, where she met Tao. Tao also volunteered with UHN and Unity Health clinics, and she had access to schedules that weren’t yet public. She passed that info along to Yim, who was able to share it with her very relieved grandmother. “It was both exhilarating and exhausting to be able to get shots for people I cared about,” Yim says. “I was extremely impressed with the sophistication and organization a crowdsourced citizen initiative like this was able to achieve.”

How an army of volunteers inoculated Ontario

In a time of so much despair, the vax hunters gave people a greater sense of possibility. After volunteering with UHN and Unity Health, and then with Vaccine Hunters, Tao thought to herself, Okay, now I’m a health care worker. “You just realize that you have skills,” she says, “and if you’re competent, you can do anything. It’s amazing.”

I met Andrew Young and Sabrina Craig in early August at Sherwood Park, near Mount Pleasant and Eglinton. They were accompanied by a couple of other women from the organization’s small communications team. This was the first time any of the Vaccine Hunters had met in real life, and there were a lot of broad smiles, laughter and tentative embraces from people remembering how to hug.

I wanted to hug them too. Pretty much every adult and teen I knew had been vaccinated by then, many of them directly or indirectly because of Vaccine Hunters. And in person, both Young and Craig were almost impossibly kind, gentle and earnest people. It was a bright, sweltering day, and we sat in the grass. Despite the heat, Young wore a black hoodie and jeans. He had glasses, and sported a wispy goatee and a frequent, shy grin. Craig was pale and petite, shaded by a large sun hat. Both spoke thoughtfully, though Craig even more so—in slow sentences, her words chosen with diplomatic care. They were both scrupulously modest. Before arriving at the meeting, I realized that aside from his Twitter avatar, I had never even seen a photograph of Young before. In almost all news stories about Vaccine Hunters, his co-directors spoke for the organization. That was changing, though, mainly because Young had a bit more time on his hands. In the weeks before and after we met, he appeared on CNN to talk about Vaccine Hunters.

How an army of volunteers inoculated Ontario

The mission of Vaccine Hunters has always been to facilitate shots in arms. They wanted to succeed where the provincial government had failed—to make it simple for people to book their own appointments. In August, they launched Find Your Immunization, a multilingual, self-serve website that provides vaccine availability from pharmacies, pop-ups and clinics across Canada. It made everyone a potential Vaccine Hunter—all you had to do was enter your postal code and the website did the rest. By the end of August, they posted their final updates to all their social media channels. Most volunteers quietly retired. The timing seemed good: 78 per cent of Torontonians over the age of 12 were fully vaccinated and 84 per cent had received their first dose. From the beginning, Young had said that his goal was to make Vaccine Hunters unnecessary. Now, finally, after hundreds of thousands of hours spent vax hunting, maybe that was the case. On that warm, sunny day in the park, we all allowed ourselves to enjoy a moment of relief.

And yet, as Young pointed out, it’s not over yet. We’ve been extremely fortunate in Canada—we had the money and the vaccine supply, we had, more or less, the political will, and we had organizations like Vaccine Hunters. While we’re talking about third doses, billions of people around the world still haven’t received their first. When we met, Young had started building tools to help boost vaccination rates abroad. One of those tools, a website called VaxiNations, launched in late September, bringing together Vaccine Hunters–like initiatives in Australia, New Zealand and New York under one digital umbrella. “Vaccine equity is a very important thing to keep in mind,” Young said. “As a planet, we aren’t really out of this.”

Just a few weeks after we met, it was clear that we, as a city and a country, weren’t out of this either. The Delta variant had changed the rules of the game. Anti-vax sentiment seemed to be growing, or at least became more visible after Trudeau called the election. In Ontario, schools were back in session, with unvaccinated elementary students and their families facing another year of uncertainty and fear. Cases in Alberta and Saskatchewan spiralled out of control; the health care systems in both provinces were on the verge of collapse. The pandemic had, once again, revealed both the incompetence and ignorance of some of our political leaders, and showed how easy it was for governments to fail us.

How an army of volunteers inoculated Ontario

But the Vaccine Hunters, even while now relatively quiet, continued to show how powerful we could be as citizens. How we can take matters into our own hands, take action, create our own hope. In Alberta, a Twitter account had emerged, unaffiliated with Vaccine Hunters but clearly inspired by it— BedHuntersAB (@ABBedclosures), which tracked shortages and bed closures in hospitals across that province. When the Ontario government was failing to accurately track public school Covid cases, Young helped the Local, an online urban health magazine based in Toronto, to create a digital tool that would do so. Vaccine Hunters has also partnered with bioethicist Peter Singer, the WHO’s assistant director general, to help vaccine rollouts in other countries, and with UHN’s Social Medicine program to bridge gaps in local health care.

A (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime pandemic requires a once-in-a-lifetime response. It requires new ways of thinking and being. Vaccine Hunters is exactly that. We don’t need to always seek glory and financial gain. We can take comfort in knowing that, even in a crisis, perhaps especially in a crisis, there will always be people—lots of people—who take care of each other. In an era of relentless individualism, constant self-promotion and reflexive monetization, Vaccine Hunters is revolutionary.

How an army of volunteers inoculated Ontario
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This story appears in the December 2021 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $29.95 a year, click here.

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