Facebook groups and 14-hour car rides. Some Michigan residents are ‘desperate’ for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Jodi Schumaker cried while she drove north on Interstate 75 through Kentucky on Tuesday afternoon, feeling defeated as she headed home to Michigan without getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
Her hopes had been crushed by bad weather that delayed coronavirus vaccine shipments all over the U.S., including the delivery to the Walmart store in Mississippi where she and her husband had appointments to get shots.
“I just want to get back home in our bubble, safe again until I can find yet another place to get vaccinated,” said Schumaker, 53.
Schumaker’s hunt for a coronavirus vaccine is centered almost entirely on her husband, David, who is 60, paraplegic, has diabetes, high blood pressure, and congestive heart failure.
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“I get up every morning at 6, 7 in the morning, and I look for slots that might be open or lists that I might get on that have extra doses,” she said.
“He had one heart attack right before COVID and he had one heart attack during COVID,” she said. “So he goes to physical therapy and he comes home, and other than that, this trip is the first thing he’s done outside of the house since COVID.”
For someone as medically fragile as David Schumaker, contracting the virus could prove deadly. His wife has made it her mission to find a way to get him immunized — even it meant a 14-hour car ride to Mississippi.
“This shot could could mean saving his life, you know?” Jodi Schumaker said. “It doesn’t mean that we’re going to be able to go out and go places even if we get this until the world’s a much safer place for him.”
But getting an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine has been elusive for many as demand far exceeds supply, pushing some people to go to extremes to get a coveted shot in the arm.
Because there aren’t enough doses of COVID-19 vaccines yet to give a jab to everyone who wants one, state and local health departments have had to prioritize who should be the first to get them.
Michigan’s vaccine eligibility guidelines haven’t opened up yet to include David Schumaker, who falls into the 1C priority group for COVID-19 immunizations. Only those 65 and older, people living in long-term care facilities, and those with certain jobs that are considered essential are eligible to get shots in most parts of the state.
“We haven’t been called for any appointments slots yet,” Jodi Schumaker said. “It’s been frustrating. We do everything we’re supposed to. We mask up. We wash, and we socially distance. We weren’t able to celebrate the holidays with our kids. And they asked us to get the shot and we’re willing and waiting, but there’s no way to get the shot.”
She found a Facebook group called Midwest Vaccine Hunters in mid-February, and asked for advice. There, volunteers help people like the Schumakers find vaccine appointments. That’s where she learned that some people had success getting immunizations at Walmart stores in Mississippi.
Katie Monaghan also was perusing the Midwest Vaccine Hunters Facebook page earlier this month, and realized how badly Michiganders like the Schumakers needed help.
When Monaghan saw there were no vaccine hunter Facebook groups for Michigan, she created one and started using her tech skills to help others snag appointments.
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“You see people that are just, they’re desperate,” said Monaghan, a 27-year-old manufacturing engineer. “They’ve tried everything, and to finally be able to get them that appointment for them, it’s just the best feeling in the world.”
Monaghan started the state’s first vaccine hunters Facebook group on Feb. 11.
“The vast majority of the work we do right now is connecting eligible people to appointments and helping them navigate the somewhat fragmented system of getting an appointment,” Monaghan said. “We’re hearing from a lot of people who live out of state but have elderly parents that live in the area and are trying to navigate the Michigan system of getting their elderly parents that appointment.
“The Michigan rollout has done a really good job of making sure that you are very close to a place that distributes vaccines, but the flip side of that coin is that because there’s very little availability right now, you have to check a lot of different places and get in a lot of different lines to get that first appointment. So we are getting a lot of people at wit’s end.”
Substitute teacher Kim O’Neal is among them.
Teachers are eligible in Michigan for COVID-19 vaccines, and substitute teachers qualify, too. But, she explained, there’s no streamlined way for her to sign up for a shot.
O’Neal said she spent hours several days a week calling a local hospital system’s designated phone line for COVID-19 vaccine appointments, but “on the rare occasions I get through … I always get hung up on after about 10 minutes.”
Elizabeth Griem, 33, knows that heartache.
“It was a nightmare,” Griem said of trying to schedule her father and her father-in-law for COVID-19 vaccines when the state opened eligibility to those 65 and older. “I called every doctor that they had. I called everyone I could possibly think of, you know, every hospital system. I spent about two weeks on hold, every day for hours at a time just trying to figure out where to get them in.
She added: “I could only imagine what it would be like for a senior citizen to try to navigate the online system or try to make the phone calls. It’s very wearing on people, and it’s kind of like a full-time job doing that.”
When she eventually managed to get vaccine appointments, “he was crying. I was crying,” Griem said. “Same thing for my father in law. … It was just such a relief for us all.”
She then turned her focus toward helping others.
“There’s lots of people willing to help and there’s lots of people needing help,” said Griem, who is now what’s known as a social media vaccine angel who volunteers to find vaccine appointments for people without the skills to hunt for them on their own.
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“A lot of people don’t know where to start,” said Karen Dunnam, 64, of Grand Rapids, who moderates the western Michigan vaccine hunters Facebook group.
She shares tricks and tips with people searching for vaccine appointments, offering details about what time stores typically open up new vaccine appointments and specifics about shifting vaccine eligibility requirements for some local health departments.
The city of Detroit’s health department, she noted, has a “Good Neighbor” program and will give COVID-19 vaccines to anyone 55 or older who drives a Detroit senior citizen to a vaccine clinic — no matter where that driver lives.
“In the Detroit-area group, we’ve got people falling in line to drive a Detroiter to get vaccinated so that they can get a shot as well,” she said.
Dunnam encourages people searching for vaccine doses to register through their local health departments and get on waiting lists at hospitals and pharmacies, too. She said people should also keep in mind sometimes extra doses are given out at the end of the day at vaccine clinics to people who don’t meet the state’s eligibility criteria just to avoid wasting them.
‘It’s such a moving target,” Dunnam said. “There was a message someone posted the other day saying you should call your Walgreens that’s doing a clinic, ask to get on their leftover vaccine list, show up in the parking lot at 3 o’clock, let them know you’re there … and if you’re in the store at 3:30, you might get a vaccine.”
It’s not a sure thing, Dunnam said, but “it beats driving to Mississippi.”
Since December in Michigan, about 2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been given, according to state data, and roughly 16% of the state’s population ages 16 and older have gotten at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
State health officials have set a goal of fully immunizing 70% of Michigan’s 16-and-older population — about 5.7 million people — by year’s end. The vaccines now on the market, Pfizer/BioNTech’s and Moderna’s, both require two shots spaced by three to four weeks.
Judy Constant, 57,
gets emotional thinking about how hard it was to get a shot for her 95-year-old mother, and wants to make sure other elderly people can get their vaccines, too.
“My husband has seen me stand up and cheer at my computer,” she said, when she manages to grab a hard-fought appointment for a vulnerable person.
“I call it the golden ticket and I send them a picture on my phone of a golden ticket from Willy Wonka.”
Jodi Schumaker is still looking for her husband’s golden ticket.
“This is my life now,” she said. “I’ll just keep working until he gets a shot.”
Follow Kristen Shamus on Twitter @kristenshamus.