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UMBC COVID-19 vaccine hunters find appointments for frontline staff

As alarms blare from her laptop, Candace Martinez-Doane, Assistant Director of Leadership and Government at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, launches into action. These alarms tell her that COVID-19 vaccine appointments are available. Martinez-Doane immediately stops her work, somewhat frantically pulling up a Google Sheet that holds the names, addresses, insurance details and other information of the people that asked for her help to book an appointment. 

Her fingers move fast as she copies and pastes name after name from her spreadsheet into the appointment portal, typing until no appointments remain or until she runs out of people.

“It’s like the Hunger Games out here,” Martinez-Doane explained.

Martinez-Doane is a vaccine hunter, someone who follows the national COVID-19 vaccination rollout and searches for the vaccines across states’ vaccination sites. She was paying attention to the spread of COVID-19 since January 2020, long before the virus forced UMBC to close the campus that March. As the world shut down, Martinez-Doane searched for ways to help her community. 

“My love language is acts of service. I wanted to help people since that’s how I show that I care for people that are important to me,” said Martinez-Doane. “Being able to take that burden off of someone is sort of an extension of that for me.”

In the pandemic’s early months, Martinez-Doane collected hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes and other cleaning supplies to distribute to teachers and people in her neighborhood. As vaccines became available, Martinez-Doane helped her parents and her friends’ parents register for vaccination appointments in their home states. 

As she helped more and more people register for appointments, she realized it was a way she could help return the world to some semblance of normalcy. She joined Facebook groups like Maryland Equity Vaccine Hunters and installed automatic website refresher extensions to constantly refresh pages like TurboVax and MDVax to stay as updated as possible on appointment openings. 

“I’m not Dr. Corbett. I can’t develop an mRNA vaccine. That’s not my skill set. I’m not Dr. Hrabowski. Nobody’s going to listen to me if I have a video that says ‘Hey, go get the vaccine.’ I’m not Jen Dress who has the political capital on campus to say ‘Let us help you,’” said Martinez-Doane. “My skill set is me being happy to wake up at midnight and book 10 appointments while listening to Missy Elliott.”

Both Associate Director of Campus Life Jen Dress and Martinez-Doane started their vaccine hunter journey by booking vaccines for their immediate circles. Once Maryland opened vaccine eligibility to groups 1B and 1C, the pair worked together to get UMBC staff and faculty vaccinated. Together they have registered over 600 people for vaccinations. Over 30 of those appointments were for ABM staff that help maintain and clean UMBC facilities and residential buildings. As of publication, all ABM staff members scheduled have received their first dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine at the M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore.

Dress and Martinez-Doane did not stop at booking appointments for these employees; they also organized transportation. Partnering with UMBC Transit, Dress and Martinez-Doane booked UMBC coach buses to transport the ABM workers to and from their vaccine appointments.

Now that almost all ABM workers that want a vaccine have gotten one, Dress and Martinez-Doane are looking for vaccination appointments for 60 Chartwells employees. To Martinez-Doane and Dress, it is crucial to get as many frontline UMBC staff vaccinated as possible since they keep UMBC operational.

“They’ve been taking care of UMBC this whole time. We just want to take care of them,” said Martinez-Doane.

Both Martinez-Doane and Dress felt it was their responsibility to help UMBC’s frontline workers access vaccines since they do not have the luxury to work at a computer all day and the time to refresh vaccination websites.

“One of the big challenges in this system is that the people that need vaccines are not always the people that are sitting at computers,” explained Dress.

“I literally sit at a computer all day, and I can be doing my work and have something auto-refreshing on my screen. If something comes up, I can take two minutes to book someone’s COVID appointment,” said Martinez-Doane. “Someone who’s working for Instacart, someone who has to be an in-home health aide, someone who has to work at Walgreens, they have not had that luxury.” 

While Martinez-Doane accounts for most of the vaccination bookings, she said the ABM worker vaccination operation would not have been possible without Dress. The political capital and trust Dress has amongst ABM workers and other frontline UMBC staff eased their anxiety about the vaccine and having a stranger help them.

“I will talk to anyone I can about this vaccine,” said Dress. “I will talk about how I got it for my 95-year-old nana in Ohio and how my parents took it and how I’m really encouraging the people I love and care to get it.”

Helping their co-workers and helping people across the U.S. keeps Martinez-Doane and Dress working despite having to wake up at midnight and again at 5 a.m. to catch appointment drops or being inundated with requests for vaccination help. What gets them through the most stressful days are the messages each has received thanking them for things like someone’s ability to safely care for their brother in hospice or someone’s ability to visit their mother who is going through chemotherapy. 

“It feels like a little hope in the world,” said Dress. As vaccines becomes more widely available, both Dress and Martinez-Doane are prepared to help as many eligible people as they can book vaccine appointments. When it comes to getting students vaccine appointments once they are made available on April 27, Dress said: “Bring it on.”