[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: As soon as my province announced on Sunday, it was lowering the required age for the AstraZeneca vaccine to include me, I went straight to the experts to figure out my options. The government of Ontario’s COVID vaccine portal? No. The city of Toronto’s list of clinics and pharmacies and pop-ups? Nah. The local newspaper with deep community roots and the time-tested trust of its readers? Closer, but no.
I went right to Twitter, to an account called Vax Hunters Canada. And before the provincial government had even updated its website to include my eligibility, I had an appointment. Now, this is great for me, I feel a sense of relief I’d forgotten was possible. But on the whole, I think we can all probably agree that when the most reliable source of vaccine availability information is a Twitter [00:01:00] account run by ordinary citizens, something has gone wrong somewhere in the rollout process. Think about it like this, ask yourself if the people who are most in need of vaccination right now are the sort of people who, like an extremely online podcast host, can afford to sit in front of, or even have a laptop, and refresh a Twitter account and try to score an appointment like it’s the Rage Against The Machine reunion tour. Hey, you heard me tell you I’m eligible for the vaccine now so you know I’m old. Who is behind Vax Hunters Canada, and why did they start it? How does this account manage to track vaccination appointments from all across the country?
From an Ontario Walmart to a Calgary pharmacy to Prince Edward Islanders. Searching for information on the age rules and their profits. And more importantly than all that, since you may not have time to refresh Twitter incessantly yourself, what tips have they discovered [00:02:00] that work for finding your way through the vaccination maze?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Josh Kalpin is a software engineer, but that’s not why you know him. He is one of the people who developed the Vax Hunters Twitter account and Discord server, and anything else, Josh?
Josh Kalpin: A Facebook page?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Facebook page. Where did this all start? Why and when and how?
Josh Kalpin: Yeah. So Vaccine Hunters Canada started, um, our creator, his name is Andrew, and originally he was just looking for, to get his parents like a vaccine appointment. And he was able to eventually do that, but he realized that like, this was really challenging to do, and he’s pretty computer savvy, being a software developer.
So he found vaccinehunter.org, which is a website in the States and was doing a lot of vaccine awareness. They did a lot of leftover vaccine things, but he found that that would [00:03:00] probably be something we could use in Canada, regardless of how our vaccine rollout’s going or anything like that. So he created vaccinehunters.ca, and also created the Twitter account @VaxHuntersCan, uh, and created a Discord server as well, which is- for those that don’t know what that is, it’s kind of like a chatting tool, similar to like an instant messenger you might have at work with different chat rooms and things like that. And that’s how it really got started. Um, and the focus was on real time information, um, mainly around vaccine awareness, where people could book appointments, how they could book appointments, and helping people book appointments.
We do not hang around outside vaccine clinics. Or harass health workers. We, we, we have zero tolerance for any of that behavior, um, looking for leftovers. We’re trying to just help fill every possible slot with a vaccine.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How long ago was that? That Andrew started this.
Josh Kalpin: He started it in March. Um, so it hasn’t really been that long. It’s only been really maybe a month, maybe just over a month at this point.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And how big are you [00:04:00] guys now? You know, you can use followers or, or Facebook likes or whatever you want, but give me a sense of how quickly this has taken off, because it really has.
Josh Kalpin: Uh, yeah. So if we fast forward, back to like, uh, Monday, like April 12th, uh, we had about 7,000 followers.
We hit 10,000 at like five o’clock that day, then 20,000, less than 24 hours. Um, and now today, On April 19th, uh, we are just under 85,000 and probably will hit 85,000 by the time we’re done talking here. Um, our Discord server, last time I checked, had well over 5,000 people in it. I think we’re push that- that just exploded as well. And Facebook is our newest medium, and that’s still growing, but, uh, we’re hoping we can reach a different demographic with that too.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: In a perfect world, you wouldn’t be as necessary as you are. Am I wrong about that?
Josh Kalpin: I’d say that we’d exist no matter what. Nothing is perfect, right, and I think, I [00:05:00] think the main takeaway that we’ve learned from this is Canadians, it’s part of our culture and our duties to help each other. And people have dealt with a lot of change over the last year. And these vaccines are also a very new thing as well. And I think having community reach out to you and help you and answer your questions and, uh, encourage you to talk to your doctor if you have concerns and things like that, goes a really long way. And I think, so, like if, if hypothetically the vaccine rollout was perfect, which I don’t think is possible, even seeing, looking at the States with how much of the supply they have, in the UK with how much supply they have, I think we would exist, and I think we would serve a really good purpose, just because it’s the community thing, right? Canadians helping each other. And that’s what we’re here for.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How do you guys feel about the fact, and you know, again, I’ve followed you for about a week, I used some of your information last night- uh, I’m 40- to get my vaccine booked, uh, which is fantastic. And in [00:06:00] following you, I’ve seen a lot of people who, you know, reply to your tweets and engage with you basically saying like, “Thank you. I couldn’t find this stuff through what the government provides.”
Josh Kalpin: Yeah. I, I think it’s just, there’s, there’s a lot of information and we also have to remember that like, Canada- every province, right? There’s, there’s, there’s very large demographic differences between different parts of this country. Uh, me being here in Toronto, we have very different problems than someone would in Fort McMurray, Alberta, or in Yellowknife, or even in Nunavut, which is, which is completely different than most of the country, right.
And, as a result, you’re seeing a vaccine rollout that’s, that’s, hyper-local. Each part of the country and each public health unit has a different strategy on how to get people vaccinated. And that’s just because they know their demographics the best, and if we can help with that, that’s great. Um, and, and that’s what we’re here for, as [00:07:00] I said. We just want to help people, and, um, if we can provide information, that- that’s the best way we can do it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: One of the things that, that fascinates me is that this account is online basically all the time. So, uh, I know you don’t want to mention anyone by name or anything, but roughly how many people work on this and how much time does it take? Is this, is this anyone’s full-time job yet, or what?
Josh Kalpin: Majority, I’m going to say a majority of us, just because we have a couple volunteers that, um, might not be working right now and are kind of doing this to keep themselves busy, but most of us have full-time jobs. I have a full-time job. Um, Andrew who created this has a full-time job.
So a lot of this is done in our spare time. And when we get a few minutes, uh, during the day, we don’t get paid for this at all. I don’t need to get paid for this. Uh, I don’t want to be paid for this. We kind of just devote as much time as we can. The core team is four of us. It’s myself, Andrew, uh, Sabrina and Jonathan.
Uh, there’s. We’re, like, the core, we’re the ones [00:08:00] that, that coordinate things, bring on new people, you know, the, the, the core logistics. We just,
uh, got a formal PR person who’s doing this for us, which is amazing. Uh, we’ve had a number of different social media specialists from various companies, uh, reach out to us just to volunteer their time.
That’s how we got Facebook going, was through one of those connections. Uh, and then we have a growing group of contributors who are basically people, uh, we call them local specialists, if you’ve want to think of it that way. We have someone in Quebec, Alberta, BC, because. Really there’s, it’s so hard to keep track of the whole country in your head and having people from those provinces handle those things is great.
And then we have moderators for Discord and Facebook. And so the team is steadily growing, but the core of it’s pretty small, still, if you think about the scale of what we’re doing.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Can you tell me a little bit about just how it works? Like what goes into the end result that I see, which is a post [00:09:00] saying, you know, “Hey, heads up 40+ Ontario, there are some spots left at this particular Walmart or pharmacy or whatever.” Like how do you get from A to B?
Josh Kalpin: I would say like, I’ll start at a higher level. So Twitter has a lists feature and we can monitor basically every public health unit in the entire country using different sets of lists for each province and across the country as well. Uh, so any time that you see an update, that’s like sent out, that’s like the Porcupine Health Unit has an eligibility update or, uh, some part of Alberta has an eligibility update, that’s just because we see it on Twitter and we just kind of reshare that. Um, we learned about a lot of pop-ups that way, too.
However, most of the information comes from community members. Um, we get up tips about mobile clinics, about spots, opening up about, uh, eligibility changes, like for instance, York Region, it turned out to be a mistake, but someone found on one of the York Region websites that, like, there was 18+ listed and it wasn’t listed anywhere [00:10:00] else.
But someone in our community happened to look and saw 18+ and everyone booked. It turns out, it seems like they’re honoring a lot of the appointments, which is great, but like, that’s kind of where a lot of these things come from. For pharmacies, a lot of the time we get tips from the pharmacists themselves saying, “I have a hundred doses sitting in my fridge here. I need them in arms. Can you, can you let people know to come?” And we send those out. Um, if, if we want to even talk more about like, uh, when, when 40+ got announced, uh, the other night, we kind of set, uh, set a goal for ourselves to just try and book as many appointments as possible in the entire province.
So we did a thing we jokingly call- called a vaccine party where we just kind of have some fun and tell a few jokes and make some puns and, and just blast out as much pharmacy information as possible. So it’s really community driven. And I think that’s the beauty here is that we are just facilitators and people just keep giving us information.
And we just want to share that with as many people as possible.
[00:11:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, one of the things that we really wanted to have you on here for is to maybe, for people who are still trying to navigate this, offer them some tips. When you guys are looking for appointments, you know, what do you look for first? What do you find reliably works? That kind of stuff.
Josh Kalpin: Of course I will. I will plug, uh, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, whatever, you can get updates that way. But if you’re looking for yourself, I’d say the first thing to do, before, before you do anything, um, is figure out what public health unit you live in. I think a lot of people don’t realize that they might live in a specific public health unit, like Oakville is Halton and Brampton and Mississauga are Peel, but they’re very like the cities kind of blend together. So everyone thinks, oh maybe it’s the same thing. It’s not. So understanding where you, where you are is probably what I would say is the first step.
Figure out where you, what public health unit you’re in, figure out, find their website. If you just Google, for instance, like I said, Porcupine, which is up in Northern [00:12:00] Ontario, Porcupine Health Unit, you’ll find, um, information from there and they usually have stuff about vaccination in your area. Um, and then also take a look on social media and whatever.
The other thing is, if you live in a big city, uh, hospitals, generally, their own clinics, figure out what your local hospital is and, uh, take a look on their website and follow the, check them out on social media or whatnot. Um, we kind of check various hospitals and we figured out which ones do have catchment area rules, which means you have to live near and, and which ones don’t, but it’s, it’s kind of complicated, so it’s best to focus on the one that is closest to you.
For pharmacies, if you’re looking for an appointment, some of them have websites, but honestly the best trick is to call some of them, especially those independent pharmacies. They have so much supply right now for 40+. And, pick up the, if you don’t hear something from the pharmacy just call them, like it’s a low tech solution, but that’s really the best bet.
I think just familiarizing yourself with what the general provincial [00:13:00] guideline is, and the local one is, is the best way to go about this.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How much luck is involved for individual appointments?
Josh Kalpin: Uh, I would say it depends on where. I think it just depends on how you qualify for a vaccine. There’s lots of different eligibility rules across like all over the place, right?
So some hospitals tend to be a little looser than others. Um, in some public health units have different strategies, some do preregistration, some do appointments being posted. I would say there is a little bit of luck involved in some cases. But what we find is there tends to be more appointments than people think.
But I think the biggest issue is really around like, take the first shot that you can find, like, it doesn’t matter which vaccine it is, take the first shot you can find. And what we see is that when people are trying to vaccine shop, they have a lot more problems or they insist on going to a specific clinic or things like that.
If you’re flexible, [00:14:00] with where you can go and what, and, and just take the first shot available to you, it’s much, much, much easier to get your vaccine done.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m glad you mentioned that because with the eligibility dropping so quickly, uh, and now, you know, at least, uh, Ontario and Alberta, uh, allowing 40+ people to get the AstraZeneca, there’s been some talk, um, from some folks kind of saying, you know, if you’re not an essential worker and you’re not in a hotspot and you can, you can stay home and be relatively safe, you should not book yet, and you should let that spot go to somebody, you know, who can’t do that. Is that the right strategy? What do you think about that?
Josh Kalpin: I think that’s actually the complete wrong strategy here. This virus doesn’t discriminate based on like your living situation or your age. I think essential workers, a hundred percent need to get their vaccines now. However, with- if you are eligible for a vaccine, you should get it.
The sooner you get your [00:15:00] vaccine, the sooner they’ll probably open up the guidelines for more other people to get their vaccines. There’s been many reports in the, in the media this weekend of people who ended up in the ICU because, oh they didn’t get around to it, or they were waiting for a specific brand, or they didn’t feel like they were going to get COVID.
And really the emphasis here is like, yes, essential workers absolutely need to get their shots. But if you feel guilty in any way that you’re, because you’re eligible and you’re like, I don’t deserve this over someone else, the best way to pay that forward and deal with that guilt is to call up all of your friends and family and coworkers, anyone that’s an essential worker, and check in on them, how they’re doing, do they need help booking an appointment, and help them get their vaccine.
You have to look out for yourself, right? Like you want to be safe. You want to not get sick. We need to do everything in our power to keep people out of the hospitals and dying in this country right now.
But really the most important thing that you can [00:16:00] do is, if you feel guilty, help as many people as possible get their shots done. That’s the way to go.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: As more and more people become eligible, um, how hard are you guys finding it to keep up with the simple availability and the desire for information? Now you know, I was, again, I was watching you guys last night and, you know, it was wonderful to see like that party energy was fantastic. Um, but it does seem like it’s something of a free-for-all, at least in Ontario now, and possibly in Alberta, too.
Josh Kalpin: I think this is where we have to scale as a group. I would say the information is coming at a relentless speed.
We get more Twitter DMs by the day, we get emails. Um, most of our emails are actually from seniors, funny enough. Um, and we take a lot of time to make sure we answer them very clearly for them, but there’s just a lot. It’s like a, it’s like a flood and yeah, the eligibility requirements are changing constantly, um, I think they’re [00:17:00] trying to put out the fires, which is very important. We just try our best. We’re not going to be able to send out every little piece of information, but we’ll, we’ll do our best to try and broadcast as much as we can.
The main, the main things is we’re prior- trying to prioritize when there’s like appointments available today, or the next day, that gets priority over stuff that’s in, like, two weeks from now because. Frankly, we- even excluding everything to do with vaccines, like, I always say that, like, I barely know what’s happening, like, tomorrow, let alone next week throughout this whole pandemic. So we’re trying to prioritize and just have more people to send out updates, but it is a lot, I will freely admit it. There’s a lot of information that we have to parse through and verify.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If someone’s listening to this podcast now and, uh, you know, you’ve helped them book an appointment or they just want to pay it forward, like you said, how can they help? Do you want them to reach out and, you know, be a body and be a set of hands? Do you need money to keep going? Um, [00:18:00] what helps us expand as vaccination, uh, expands with it?
Josh Kalpin: Like if you have a specialized skill relating to anything to do with this, feel free to reach out to us. Um, we can probably find a way to take advantage of that, but, um, that, that’s how we’ve, we’ve been able to expand to Facebook and some other things.
Um, however, generally we’re, we’re pretty- we’d rather join the community and help, help other people out first. Um, if you’re a medical expert and want to help people with eligibility requirements or whatever, we have a specific medical role, uh, in our Discord server that it continues to grow day by day.
We have people working at vaccination clinics do answering questions. We have doctors. I, I’ve lost track of, of who, who does what anymore, because there’s just so many of them. But really, if you want to help, to any Canadian that wants to help, contact your friends, family, coworkers, neighbours, anyone that you know, especially [00:19:00] those that are, are essential workers that are at risk, might have health conditions, don’t, maybe English isn’t their first language, may not be that computer literate or, or that great with technology- check how they’re doing, first of all, but then ask them if they need help booking their appointments this is how we’re going to end the pandemic and basically get this done is we have to help each other and you don’t have to devote half your life to this, like, like some of us on the team are doing, but really everything helps. Every single thing helps. And this is something actual you can do to end the pandemic.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Josh, thank you so much for this, and thank you for all the work that you and the team are doing. You know, I mentioned, I am grateful. I know there are a ton of our listeners who feel the same way, so keep it up.
Josh Kalpin: Thank you, and thank you for having us on here. Uh, it was great chatting with you today.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Josh Kalpin of Vaccine Hunters Canada. You can find them, yes, on Twitter. That was The Big [00:20:00] Story, for more from us, head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us anytime via email, thebigstorypodcast, that’s all one word, all lower case, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And, as always, in your favourite podcast player, we are right there. You can rate us, you can review us. If you like these shows, you can tell a friend, in fact, you can take their phone and subscribe to this podcast and sit back and wait for them to thank you.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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