ROANOKE, VA. – Nearly one in every four Virginians has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and for some, the process was anything but easy.
There are thousands of Virginians, calling themselves “Vaccine Hunters,” who spend countless hours collaborating online to track down and book appointments. Many of them end up traveling far outside their health districts to get it, and Roanoke became a favorite target.
The first half of 2021 will be remembered as the tale of two worlds for those who were vaccinated and those who were not.
Chris DeMay lives in Northern Virginia and is the administrator of the “NoVA Vaccine Hunters” group on Facebook. With more than 13,000 members, it has been a lifeline to many desperate for the vaccine.
“We have a lot of success stories from folks saying that they wouldn’t have found the vaccine otherwise, they didn’t know how to get their shot before joining the group,” DeMay said.
His group is one of a handful out there, including a group focused on Richmond. Their success comes from power in numbers by crowdsourcing appointments.
Members of the group scour pharmacy appointments online and post availabilities for others in the group. Sometimes they are local to a member and sometimes they are not. Once available appointments are identified, they’re able to be scooped up on the spot by group members. Some posts encouraged people to check right after midnight because they believed that’s when appointments were made available.
“Nobody wants to drive an hour, nobody wants to drive an hour and a half to get a vaccine, they are passing 20 CVS’s along the way,” DeMay said.
But people are doing just that. A search for ‘Roanoke’ in the groups proved it became a favorite target over the last two months.
One member posted in part, “We are driving from Chesterfield to Roanoke and Bedford to get shots.”
“Hello, I live in Alexandria,” began another post. “I have an appointment at a Roanoke Kroger tomorrow,” the post continued on.
A member who appears to live on the other side of the state offered her availability to search online for people. “Where are the best locations to search for Kroger, seems like Roanoke?” the post said.
The practice is known as vaccine tourism and isn’t anything new according to Dr. James Peterson, a medical ethics expert and professor at Roanoke College.
While some may see it as gamification of the system, Dr. Peterson said as long as people aren’t breaking the rules, every shot counts.
“Anyone who is not vaccinated is a walking laboratory for COVID to become more severe or more infectious for everyone else,” Dr. Peterson said. “So every time anyone is vaccinated anywhere it’s better for everyone else.”
A quick search of the groups found cases of nearly three dozen people traveling to the Roanoke Health District from far outside it, either self-identifying their home location and where their appointment is, or identifying their appointment location and listing a residence locality on their profile.
While some in our area have questioned this practice, people using this method are not breaking the rules. The federal government provides the doses and mandates no one can be turned away for a shot based on residency.
“I don’t love it, I mean I do understand the desperation that so many people are facing to try to get (the) vaccine and we need to acknowledge that reality,” state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula said.
Virginia allocated doses based on population sizes and some eligible people in our area said they struggled to get an appointment, or still have not been vaccinated at all.
But Dr. Avula points to high rates of vaccination in our local districts, the Roanoke Valley’s vaccination rate is higher than most others in the Commonwealth.
“We can’t overly restrict, and we need to some degree trust the honesty and goodwill of people, but we are at a stage where we’re going to get through everybody in the course of weeks now,” Dr. Avula said.
With President Biden’s deadline for every adult to have at least one dose just mere weeks away, state leaders expect to beat it.
DeMay said he’s seen people from Roanoke use the site to secure appointments in Richmond and Northern Virginia as well, adding there are appointments available now in our region.
He’s encouraged by the increased availability but said the hunters aren’t’ finished quite yet.
“For every person who says they found and got their vaccine because of the group, there’s somebody who has just joined the group and is desperate to help themselves or help somebody else in the same situation,” DeMay said.