Second line of defense takes root in Arlington


Jonathan HugginsHuggins

At an in-law's kitchen table at a home near Robbins Farm, a couple has devised a simple online effort to guide the perplexed toward securing appointments for Covid-19 shots.

Diana Rastegayeva and Jonathan Huggins took action just days after the main state website repeatedly crashed. Rastegayeva, who in January had helped her grandfather in Florida line up an inoculation, thought that state's process was rocky, but found that how Massachusetts handled the matter "is worse."

She is on maternity leave from her job as chief of staff, global portfolio strategy at Foundation Medicine, a cancer genomics company.  He is an assistant professor of statistics at Boston University.

The Somerville residents with close ties to Arlington are part of grass-roots endeavors responding to the state's top-down glitches. An earlier signup effort is by Olivia Adams of Arlington, also maternity leave. Adams appeared on Channel 2's "Greater Boston" on March 2 and told host Jim Braude that Rastegayeva and she are in touch about mutual issues.

Dealing with confusion

"It's so confusing," Rastegayeva said in an Feb. 26 interview, referring to the Bay State's municipal health system. Florida's is county-based; our state delivers health from 351 cities and towns, and in the case of vaccine delivery, the state is trying to manage it.

Residents who have experienced scheduling nightmares now have another option. With a network of about 600 volunteers, with about 200 active and about 300  awaiting their volunteer orientation , the effort has resulted in about 915 successful bookings for shots as of the morning March 3. 

None of this happened using a Maryland web-service vendor under contract to the state for $400,000. This began simply. Rastegayeva said she started with an email list, offering "tips and tricks" for signing up and targeting those in age groups like her Arlington in-laws.


An Arlington woman seeking to use the service received a lengthy email, reflecting how the initial public response is shaping what Massachusetts Covid Vaccination Help is changing:

"If you have not yet been contacted to provide the necessary information but you still want help, we ask that you complete our digital intake form. This form has all of the information necessary for us to book an appointment on your behalf at the vast majority of Massachusetts Covid vaccination locations. We now have a system to encrypt and protect your data, making this centralized digital intake possible.

"If you cannot complete the intake form online, please submit this short form one of our volunteers will call you to complete the form on your behalf. Please be sure to use the same email when submitting this form so that we can link it to your previous request.

"From now on, you will be considered to be 'in our queue, once we receive your completed intake form. We're putting this new process in place because our volunteers have lost time to outreach for individuals who never responded to our requests and believe that this time can be better spent securing appointments.

"In addition, we have made changes to better align this volunteer-based effort with our mission and values. We previously operated on a first-come, first-served basis. Unfortunately, while we have helped many individuals who clearly needed our assistance, we also ended up helping those who were simply too busy or too fed up with the system to try to secure their own appointment.

"We get it -- the process is incredibly frustrating and time-intensive. However, in an environment of such constrained supply, we want to have a meaningful impact, which means identifying those who need our help the most.

"Our queue will now be prioritized based on a variety of factors, including age (only if you're 75+), race/ethnicity, whether you're an English language speaker, and whether you're located in an area that is disproportionately impacted by Covid. We will also consider how long you've been in the queue."

She called this a "word-of-mouth system," and, as it grew, she knew that its targeting would have to change.

At the start, the email list served a largely white and wealthy population. She calls this a "one-dimensional group," and she wanted more.

Then, following the initial crashes of the state site, Vaxfinder, she and her husband created a simple Google Form with links seeking volunteers willing to help. This led to a simple website, mapped out at the home of her husband's parents, where they often visit for child support. The couple have a son going on 5 and an infant.

Thus born was Massachusetts Covid Vaccination Help, hitting the 'net via Squarespace.

"We had no special access" to sources of vaccine information, Rastegayeva made clear. All are from publicly available databases.

Their advantage, she said, is "knowing how the system works." Among the tools they use are autofill and visual web monitoring.

Here is how their site explains it: "We use a combination of automated alerts, manual refreshing, autofill apps and sheer persistence to find and book vaccination appointments. We also stay on top of the latest Massachusetts Covid vaccination news, from eligibility requirements to big appointment release dates and times to new tools that can help us (and you) be more efficient."

Their assistance is free.

Operating but a short time, Rastegayeva noted this change in how they operate: They aim to try to help those who are the oldest, computer illiterate and underserved. The March 2 Globe reported that apart from "the group’s professed altruism, the state’s Covid-19 Command Center advises consumers against using such “unauthorized, non-official sources.”

To that, Rastegayeva told The Globe that she wishes that official sources were doing a better job.

'Vaccine angel'

Among the many volunteers, two told why this cause drew them in. Beth O'Brien of Arlington wrote:

"I wanted to help with this effort because the vaccine roll-out has been such a nightmare for so many people, and even when people are becoming eligible they are spending hours online and making no progress. I have successfully helped book seven people, and they have been so incredibly grateful, saying things like, "You cannot even imagine how much we appreciate what you are doing for us. I'm actually crying," or "you are our vaccine angel"?

Dori Peleg Mazor of East Arlington wrote: "I joined the group because it's addressing a really serious and urgent problem: the people most vulnerable to Covid are often the ones struggling the most with the current vaccine appointment booking system. It feels so good to play even a tiny role in this effort.

"So far I've been involved mostly behind the scenes (creating some orientation materials for new volunteers), but I'm working through a queue of 5 people, with one incredibly satisfying success thus far. An unexpected benefit of the project is the collegiality, creativity, and warmth of the other volunteers -- we are all eager to work together to put a dent in this enormous challenge."

Those who were helped

One of those helped by this site is Cheryl Marceau of Arlington, who wrote to the Arlington email list:

"These volunteers are doing what any of us would do if we were tech savvy -- using browser extensions and other tools to work through the tangled mess that is our scheduling process. They share their suggestions via email while you're waiting to connect with someone. You can do it yourself if you're ambitious. "I can't recommend them highly enough."

Margie DiMonte of Arlington resident noted to that email list March 2:

"I used this group and within a day, really less than that, Sky, the young woman who helped me, was able to book me an appointment. I'm now soon to be
getting my 2nd Pfizer shot at Fenway Park! So very glad they are receiving the recognition they deserve."

The macovidvaxhelpcom fund-raiser >>

$5,200 raised, more than doubling the $2,500 goal by 10:30 a.m. March 3.  

Boston Globe, March 2: For those frustrated with vaccine system, a crew of volunteers is ready to help


This news feature was published Wednesday, March 3, 2021.