Amid the struggle to get vaccinated, these Austin moms have helped over 3,900 people get appointments

A resident at EdenHill Communities receives their second dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. (Lauren Canterberry/Community Impact Newspaper)
A resident at EdenHill Communities receives their second dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. (Lauren Canterberry/Community Impact Newspaper)

A resident at EdenHill Communities receives their second dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. (Lauren Canterberry/Community Impact Newspaper)

Since February, Austin resident Sara Sanchez has devoted her time to help friends and strangers schedule appointments to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

She does it even when that means refreshing web pages until 4 a.m. in pursuit of hard-to-find time slots.

Sanchez began by checking the H-E-B vaccination website regularly. That is how she learned when appointments were added to the site.

Locations in each region of Texas release appointments on different days and at different times, Sanchez said.

“I was getting appointments for my family and friends, and then I started moving to former coworkers,” she said. “Then I kind of started running out of people.”

After scheduling her friends and family, Sanchez took to Facebook to find others who were eligible and needed help getting an appointment. She connected with Barbara Pestein, a school nurse at Austin ISD who lives down the street from Sanchez.

Pestein was trying to find appointments for several teachers at her school.

“I was very concerned about getting all the teachers vaccines,” Pestein said. “We got all our teachers at our school, which is really exciting because that’s made a big difference with everyone’s anxiety level.”

Word began to spread, and soon Sanchez was receiving nearly 40 calls per day and struggling to keep up with the requests. Pestein offered to help streamline the work and created a Google form and spreadsheet to organize information from vaccine seekers.

“I just started helping Sara because I could tell she was doing so much, and she's got two little kids at home, and she was staying up [through] the middle of the night,” Pestein said.

The women adopted the name “Team Herd Immunity,” and Pestein began managing the data collection and communication with those seeking help, while Sanchez continued finding and making appointments.

The small team grew to include another local mother who assists with communication, as well as Pestein’s sister-in-law, who had been booking appointments through CVS in Pennsylvania and helped Sanchez determine when appointments for CVS in Texas were released.

“Things eventually progressed, so I made the website because I know we were getting a lot of interest and it kind of just went from there,” Sanchez said. “We started expanding, and we [now] have all four corners of Texas.”

By April 6, the team had helped more than 3,900 people find appointments throughout the state and created a website with tips to help residents find appointments near them.

When someone fills out the online form, the team books appointments using a person's location, age and risk factors. Once the appointment is confirmed by the patient, Pestein said the team deletes all the information collected as a safety and privacy precaution.

“Even though everyone's eligible, we still want to be searching out those vulnerable people,” Pestein said. “Anytime I see a frontline healthcare worker, teacher or someone who's older, we make sure that they get to the top of the list right away.”

Ultimately, the small team hopes that registering for a vaccine will become more simple for residents as allocations increase. Since mid-December, 19,397,865 doses of coronavirus vaccines have been allocated to the state.

Though those who may struggle to find an appointment on their own will continue to be prioritized, the women are still willing to assist young people who seek their help with the goal of reaching herd immunity in Texas.

“We do see a lot of vaccine hesitancy,” Sanchez said. “In my mind, if I get that one teenager to sign up and get a shot, she might be able to convince her grandmother to get a shot.”

As local vaccination efforts gain steam, Sanchez and Pestein will continue to help connect residents to vaccine appointments until they are no longer needed.

“I want to be back to where I can hug my friends and we can just have a play date in the backyard and not be worried all the time,” Pestein said. “As a nurse, I managed to get my shot in December, and I just wept for it because it was like I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
By Lauren Canterberry

Reporter, New Braunfels

Lauren joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in October 2019. After graduating with a degree in journalism from the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, Lauren was a freelance journalist and worked as a college English teacher in China. At CI, Lauren covers education, local government, transportation, business, real estate development and nonprofits in New Braunfels.