When COVID-19 vaccines first became available in Canada, Andrew Young was surprised at how difficult it was to find appointments for his elderly parents, he says. As a full-time web designer for a university in Toronto, Young decided to channel his tech know-how into tracking vaccine availability.
“Early on in the pandemic, I had written some scripts to help alert me when hospitals updated their websites,” says Young. “(I was notified) if they changed from accepting all (age) 75-plus people to, say, 70 plus. In the early days it would just be me tweeting these updates.”
Young first created a discord server to track vaccine availability and then a Twitter account under the name Vaccine Hunters Canada to publicize when and where those living in Ontario could make vaccination appointments or find walk-in clinics. Later, he created a channel for each province and territory in Canada.
“For the first two weeks, it was just me in an empty chat server (with) over 13 empty channels,” says Young. “But around mid-April, we started to really pick up followers and a lot of attention. By late April, early May, things really went viral.”
Vaccine Hunters Canada now has almost 250,000 followers on its main Twitter account alone. Related Vaccine Hunter social media accounts have now sprung up across the country. People from different professional backgrounds across the country have since joined the Vaccine Hunters team; the grassroots organization now boasts more than 100 volunteers.
“It really still hasn’t sunk in yet because to me, I’ll always remember the first two weeks where it was just me. I can’t really grasp the extent that it’s grown,” Young says. “The only thing I can do is really appreciate my team.”
Young says that things really ramped up after Vaccine Hunters got a mention from Kim’s Convenience star Jean Yoon on Twitter for helping her get vaccinated. “She gave us a big shout out. She was the first real big name. And since then, we’ve had a hard time keeping track.”
Behind the scenes, the organization has eight teams of volunteers that handle different aspects of the job: teams working on monitoring and sharing vaccine availability at pop-up clinics; coordinating exclusively with pharmacies; handling communications; and even one composed of medical professionals who volunteer their time to answer questions about vaccine safety.
“I’ll always remember the first two weeks where it was just me.”
Sabrina Craig, who is the organization’s co-director and has been involved since its early days in April, says that many of the volunteers joined the team while they were temporarily without work because of the pandemic. She knows of at least three people who have now changed professional fields as a result of their work with Vaccine Hunters. One volunteer developer was hired by another volunteer after working together on a Vaccine Hunters project.
“The person who volunteered did it out of the goodness of their heart but also showcased their skills, and got hired by someone else, which was a really nice community moment,” says Sabrina.
She says she first got involved out of a desire to see her family and her community feel safer.
“I have two parents who were in the first category for getting vaccines and have immune-deficient health conditions,” she says. “Throughout the pandemic, that was always in the back of my mind: How can I keep my parents safe and have them get vaccinated quickly … and then be able to get all of the people around them vaccinated?”
Sabrina, whose day job is being a technical analyst at BMO Capital Markets, now volunteers as a lead for Vaccine Hunters’ Pharmacy Team, which connects local pharmacies and other community partners to get vaccines to where they are needed most. The team has even collaborated with corporate partners to build a Find Your Own Immunization tool, now available in 20 different languages, that helps people find vaccines in their own neighbourhoods by entering their postal code.
But Vaccine Hunters doesn’t do this work alone. The group has extensive partnerships and networks across the country. Sabrina says the initiative Science Up First was an early partner that helped share information on vaccines and pregnancy. Vaccine Hunters has also worked closely with community task forces like the Black and Latino COVID Task Forces in Ontario, numerous health-care and pharmacy organizations and even the City of Toronto.
“Our partnership with (the city) really helps to authenticate our postings because we’re able to post verified information from all our hospital partners on mobile and pop-up clinics,” says Young.
Despite its growth, the grassroots organization remains committed to keeping the operation volunteer-based and redirects all donation offers it receives directly to the Frontline Fund.
“As a sign of respect and understanding for what (front-line workers) have gone through, we felt that this is an organization that really supports them,” Young says. “We can feel really good about what is going on with (the Frontline Fund) and it is aligned with our mission – to push past the pandemic.
With this round of vaccine rollouts gradually slowing, Young isn’t telling exactly what’s in store for Vaccine Hunters but says that it has been keeping a close eye on the percentage of Canadians who’ve been vaccinated. He says the organization is discussing what next steps will be.
“I’m looking forward to the day when Vaccine Hunters Canada isn’t really needed … because it would mean Canada as a whole is on its way back to normal,” says Young. “I guess the important thing to note is that we have to look at the whole world and not just Canada.
“This pandemic can’t really end unless every nation has enough vaccine and enough people vaccinated to really move on from this.”