What are you doing in the middle of the night?
Joe Maribito, the general manager of a used-car dealership, rises at 4 a.m., when CVS sometimes releases vaccine appointments, and slips through the dark into his kitchen, to book vaccine slots for strangers.
“I’m not smart enough to be a doctor and not strong enough to be a nurse,” he said, “but this is my little piece of humanity.”
Cami Aspesi, a mother of four who works two jobs, retires at 10 p.m. and sets her alarm for just before midnight — hoping to catch another CVS release — and works five devices simultaneously.
“I’m up until 2 or 2:30 and I’m so high-strung it’s hard to settle into bed,” she said, “but I want kids to have playdates again. I want normalcy.”
The state’s vaccine rollout has been so frustrating that it infamously left people trying to book appointments in tears, dented Governor Charlie Baker’s popularity, and birthed an army of “vaccine angels” — people so upset by what they are witnessing that they are working around the clock to score slots for people they’ve never met.
“We’re so small in the universe, if we’re not helping each other out, what are we doing?” asked Alysia Shanahan-Belisle, a corporate account support lead and a musician.
She lies in bed, her preschooler and her wife by her side, quietly hitting “refresh” as she hunts for appointments for friends, uncles of friends, teachers in distant districts, the parents of the owner of a favorite barbecue restaurant.
One February afternoon, when thousands of slots suddenly became available at Gillette Stadium, she was too consumed with appointment hunting to read her daughter a bedtime story.
That was the day her supportive wife staged a loving intervention. That was 150 appointments ago.
What started as a calling, for Shanahan-Belisle and so many others, has also become a compulsion. Many sound like Vegas slots players, certain the next pull will be the lucky one — let me just hit “refresh” one more time. Working alone or as part of a group like Vaccine Hunters/Angels Massachusetts or Massachusetts Covid Vaccination Help, many volunteers describe a nearly identical trajectory:
The hunting began when they heard from an elderly relative who had become despondent after spending days with no luck booking a spot. Or they wanted to help their children’s teachers, who were unable to step away from the classroom or Zoom screen to nab a slot. Or they learned about the mother of an adult child with serious medical needs who didn’t have Internet access.
They stepped in to help. It wasn’t that hard. It felt like saving a life. It was a rush.
Word of their skill — and willingness to forgo sleep — spread. People started reaching out. Or they joined a volunteer group and became super volunteers.
Soon, they had booked 20, 30, 300 appointments, and spouses were pointing out they might want to sleep. But they can’t.
They start saying things like, “Walgreens drops at 7 a.m.” They find the intricacies of Internet waiting rooms fascinating and can tell you that the way to book an appointment at CVS is to essentially go in through a side door. That trick is accomplished by pretending you are trying to book in a state with less demand — try Maryland, Louisiana, or Hawaii — and then sliding over to Massachusetts.
Perhaps nothing says “uber volunteer” like this: They look for appointments even when they don’t know anyone who actually needs one.
“It’s addictive,” said Anne Gierahn, who has had to train herself not to look for spots if she awakens at night.
She started as part of a Brookline “adopt-a-teacher” group, and although all the educators and staffers who wanted shots at her school and a sister school in Dorchester have been booked, she keeps multiple appointment-site tabs open on her computer and checks constantly for availability, educating herself for future bookings. “I’m trying to identify patterns,” she said.
Even as volunteers help those in need, Dale McCarthy, the founder of one Facebook group, Massachusetts Covid Vaccine Info and Support, fears assistance is not reaching those who may need it most — people of color, non-English speakers, and people who don’t have time to spend on Facebook because they’re economically or otherwise stressed.
“It’s a systemic access issue,” said McCarthy, of Needham, a former prosecutor and former nonprofit executive director.
Although you wouldn’t know it by the hours they work, as recently as a few weeks ago many volunteers had no idea vaccine hunting was in their (near) future.
“Honestly, it kind of took off unexpectedly,” said Brittany DiGiovanni. She lost Gio, her beloved Brussels Griffon, in January, and vowed that 2021 would be the year she channels her grief into service.
She’s now booking 25 people a day, and by 4:30 on a recent afternoon her list was so full she had to tell people she’d try for them tomorrow.
She goes to sleep at 9:30, sets her alarm for midnight, books her list — she types faster than 170 words per minute — goes back to sleep and gets up in time to start work at 6 a.m. “I decided to take my grief and use it for good,” she said.
The vaccine angels are volunteers, but the beneficiaries often want to show their appreciation.
“People have offered me gifts and money,” said Maribito, the used-car general manager. “But if I can help by clicking my chubby fingers on a keyboard and that’s going to get them to hug their grandchildren, that’s all I need.”
He has booked more than 400 appointments with no plans to stop. “I do believe there is karma,” he said.