As the scramble for scarce vaccines intensifies, a band of volunteers has stepped in to accomplish the task that has defeated so many: making an appointment to get a COVID-19 shot.
Massachusetts COVID Vaccination Help, as this posse of mostly young women is called, launched on Feb. 20, and claims to have landed appointments for 450 people as of Monday, through a combination of technological know-how and persistence. And they did it all for free.
But hundreds more are waiting in line for help, a sign of how difficult the process has proven to be.
“The volume of the demand and desperation is incredible,” the group’s founder, Diana Rastegayeva, said by phone, as her 3-month-old cooed in the background. She’s on maternity leave from her job as chief of staff at a cancer genomics company. The whole thing started, in fact, among participants in a Facebook group for new mothers.
The volunteers are mostly between the ages of 20 and 40, but they include some older people, some men, and even a high school senior. They volunteer when their babies nap, or before and after work-from-home jobs or classes. About 275 people have offered to help but not all have started.
Despite the group’s professed altruism, the state’s COVID-19 Command Center advises consumers against using such “unauthorized, non-official sources.”
To which Rastegayeva retorts that she wishes that official sources were doing a better job.
“We are doing it because, frankly, our government is not,” she said. “We have a pretty broken system here. It’s totally inaccessible to many.”
The Command Center recommends that people who don’t have Internet access or can’t use the website call 211 to reach the Massachusetts Vaccine Scheduling Resource Line. Since Feb. 5, the line has received 171,000 calls and scheduled 12,000 appointments, with an average wait time of less than four minutes, according to a spokesperson.
But Rastegayeva says 211 does not offer the same level of access as her group.
“When someone cancels at 2 a.m., we have insomniac volunteers booking appointments in the middle of the night,” she said. Her group’s volunteers monitor hundreds of vaccine sites and deploy software that will alert them when an opening comes up.
Rastegayeva, a 32-year-old Somerville resident, started out with an e-mail listing tips and tricks for friends trying to sign up their parents. As it was shared on social media, Rastegayeva started to think about people outside her network who don’t have tech-savvy children to help them.
Her husband, Boston University math and statistics professor Jonathan Huggins, created a website that went live the Saturday before last. Through word of mouth and social media, it attracted dozens of volunteers and hundreds of clients within days.
Among the first participants were Lisa Plante, who was trying to get her 73-year-old parents signed up, and Lindsay Halliday, a friend of Plante’s who had volunteered.
Plante, a 37-year-old user experience designer for a financial services company, knows her way around a computer, but she was stymied by the state’s official website. Each time, the appointments were taken before she could complete filling out the form, which requires several pages of information. And each time she lost an appointment, she’d have to start all over again, re-entering the same information again and again.
Hearing that Halliday had volunteered with the new group, Plante filled out the form on its website seeking help. “Within 15 minutes she had found both of my parents an appointment at Gillette,” she said. “I was brought to tears.”
Halliday used software created by another mother on maternity leave, Olivia Adams, to quickly locate available spots. She typed Plante’s parents’ information into a program that would enable her to autofill the form, so there would be no delay in moving forward when an appointment became available. Then she refreshed the page repeatedly until a spot opened.
The volunteers can’t always snare an appointment in 15 minutes, as happened with Plante. Clients who have strict limitations on where and when they will get vaccinated may have to wait days. And as the vaccine supply tightens, the volunteers take longer to get results.
Halliday, 37, a stay-at-home mother of three who used to work in special education, volunteered about 40 hours in the first week.
“My house is a mess. My laundry is piling up,” she said. “It’s worth it. It’s been so rewarding to call someone who’s had so much worry about it and tell them that we’ve got something for them.”
Plante was already friends with Halliday, and they both live in Ashland. Other vaccine-seekers take a risk providing personal information to volunteers they don’t know. Rastegayeva acknowledges that she worries about a “bad actor” getting involved, and she’s taking steps to try to prevent that.
Volunteers sign an agreement promising not to use the information they’ve gathered for any other purpose, and the site monitors their activity to make sure each volunteer is moving from information-gathering to appointment-making.Vaccine-seekers are cautioned not to give out financial information or Social Security numbers.
Starting soon, volunteers will undergo an orientation and background check.
But in truth, Rastegayeva would like people seeking appointments to learn to do this on their own; she has provided a resource page showing how.
The volunteers would rather serve a bereft 89-year-old than a 66-year-old software engineer who just doesn’t want to take the time. Starting Friday, applicants are being sorted by need, using a points system based on location, age, race and ethnicity — giving priority to those from the hardest-hit areas and populations.
Already, the website has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese, and the volunteers include speakers of a dozen languages.
“Our fundamental goal is to provide this service for people who really can’t navigate the system themselves,” Rastegayeva said.
But it remains true that even people who understand computers have trouble with the state’s system. Richard Hale Shaw, 67, who worked as technology consultant for most of his career, couldn’t get an appointment for a vaccine, despite hours of trying.
When he turned to Massachusetts COVID Vaccination Help, a volunteer found an appointment in less than three hours. Shaw thinks the state should hire Rastegayeva and her crew to manage the scheduling.
Rastegayeva has recently teamed up with Adams, creator of the vaccine-finding software. Adams said her developers will help streamline processes so more people can be helped, with the ultimate goal — once supply exceeds demand — of establishing a fully automated registration system.
Meanwhile, the volunteers love what they’re doing. Katie Morris, 24, works full time from her Boston home and squeezes in her volunteer vaccine scheduling before and after work. At a time when people feel helpless in face of the pandemic, she said, “It makes you feel a little better that you’re doing something to help beat it.”
Hiawatha Bray of the Globe staff contributed to this report.