In January of this year, Diana Rastegayeva was home on maternity leave from her job as a chief of staff at Foundation Medicine when her grandfather called, excited about getting his COVID-19 vaccine. He was waiting by the phone in Florida, assuming his doctor’s office would be calling to schedule an appointment. There was just one problem: No call would be coming.
Rastegayeva knew that, so she began to navigate Florida’s online booking systems until she scored him a spot. Then she did the same for all of his friends, all while nursing her infant daughter in Somerville. “I got all the older Russian people he knows in Florida appointments,” she says, “and I was like, I wonder what it’s like here?”
As Rastegayeva was booking appointments down South, Olivia Adams saw her mother-in-law struggling to find one for her husband’s grandfather here in Massachusetts. Adams, a software developer at athenahealth, was also on maternity leave when the state began releasing its vaccination appointments. The state’s website was instantly overwhelmed as people flooded in, then were directed to various provider portals to find an elusive shot. So while her infant son slept, Adams scraped the state’s website, using its data to begin building one of her own.
Rastegayeva, meanwhile, began investigating the Massachusetts booking systems. Working in the pharmaceutical industry, she’d used online tools to keep tabs on her competitors’ drug development pipelines, so she began doing the same to monitor websites for new appointments. She began circulating her list of tips and tricks to friends and family, then on the social media groups like Moms of Camberville on Facebook, where Adams is also a member.
People started reaching out to Rastegayeva, telling her they’d not only used the tips to book appointments, but they were hooked, getting a bit of a do-gooder dopamine fix from each one they’d snagged. Now they wanted to know how they could help. So on a Saturday afternoon while her in-laws watched the kids, Rastegayeva and her husband also began building a website.
Both Adams’s and Rastegayeva’s sites went live in early February. Adams built MA Covid Vaccine Appointments, a platform that corralled vaccine appointment availability from the state database. Within 24 hours of posting it to Twitter, she went on CNN. She soon began fielding requests to meet with Governor Charlie Baker’s team, and from politicians seeking help in other states where booking sites weren’t working as intended, all while simultaneously navigating care for the baby, who is severely disabled. Adams remembers sitting in a hospital hallway with her laptop while her son was undergoing a test. “And I’m just casually on a Zoom call with the governor of Illinois giving him advice on how to get people vaccinated,” she recalls. “I was like, What’s my life right now?”
Meanwhile, Rastegayeva’s site, Massachusetts COVID Vaccination Help, was assembling an army of hundreds of volunteers, each willing to spend hours finding appointments for elderly, non-English-speaking, or undocumented people, and others with limited or no access to the Internet. The bulk of the volunteers would get online at midnight, when most appointments became available, and use the Slack messaging platform to assign cases, cheering one another on (and comparing snack choices) well into the early hours of the morning.
“I did not know what I was starting, but once I was in it, I was like, What am I going to do, not do this?” Rastegayeva recalls. “All these people need help and there are hundreds of people willing to help.”
One of them was Adams. Once MA Covid Vaccine Appointments was up and running with a team of a dozen volunteers, Adams came on board to help fix the back end of Massachusetts COVID Vaccination Help, which had been hacked together and was now buckling under the volume of requests. “She and her team joined our team and really helped us right the ship,” Rastegayeva says. “She was our technology lead. It was great. My husband was like, ‘Thank God Olivia is here,’ and we were both like, ‘Um, we’re both on maternity leave.’”
Eventually, others in the state stepped up, too. Rastegayeva’s colleague at Foundation Medicine in Cambridge, product manager Kunal Shah, teamed up with Zane Stiles, a private equity associate at Bain Capital, to launch VaccinateMA.com, another portal helping people find open vaccination appointments. “We were all in communication with one another and trying to get to the same end goal,” Shah says. “It felt like a community effort.”
All told, Adams’s site had more than 20 million page views, and Rastegayeva’s volunteer team managed to book more than 25,000 appointments. Thankfully, they were both able to get a few more weeks of well-deserved maternity leave at the end of their efforts, and the women have since become friends. “We’re in the same cohort of moms — our babies are only two weeks apart,” Rastegayeva says, as if they also didn’t have helping to get tens of thousands of people vaccinated in common.
Adams says the experience made her “realize what a level of impact an individual can have,” and left her feeling like there’s much more she can do. “I don’t know what that is yet, but I’ll figure it out soon enough,” she says. “I just hope not to stay up ‘til 2 a.m. too many more times.”