After witnessing how difficult it was to navigate the system, she and her brother Steve, who asked for their last names to be kept private because of safety concerns, decided to create a Facebook group to share resources with people struggling to get a vaccine appointment.
“If it was hard for two kids from a suburban area, [who] are white and speak English and are privileged, how hard is it going to be for people who don’t have the privileges that we have,” said Sharla.
At first the Facebook group consisted of family and friends sharing resources and helping each other find appointments. But as the siblings noticed more of the inequities in the system, the Facebook group and its purpose grew. “Find a COVID shot WA” now has more than 52,000 followers.
The group's main mission is to help individuals society has left behind.
“This is a great example of how equity wasn’t the first lens that the state put everything through,” says Steve. “It was sort of this last filter. That’s like, OK, yeah, and, oh, we need to think about equity. That should’ve been the first thing they did.”
Melissa Espinoza and her father in law Raul Espinoza Gomz during his 78th birthday party on Carnation on April 10, 2021. Melissa was able to get her father a vaccine appointment through the facebook group ‘Find a COVID shot WA’. Most of the extended family is now vaccinated and they gathered to celebrate Raul’s birthday with an outdoor dinner. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)
Their Facebook group helps members in two ways. People can post links to vaccine openings that others can use to make appointments. Another way is they provide one-on-one assistance, in multiple languages. Steve says the real magic of the group are the 75 trained volunteers who speak more than 15 languages and can provide one-on-one help. Steve and Sharla dedicate about 15 to 20 hours a day training volunteers, moderating the page and helping strangers get vaccinated.
Washington residents have at least three other ways to get help signing up for vaccines. The state Department of Health has a vaccine locator website where people can find available appointments near them. They also can call the state’s multilingual telephone hotline number at 800-525-0127. Another resource is the Washington COVID Vaccine Finder, which calls itself a community-driven effort to help Washingtonians find vaccine appointments. Public Health — Seattle & King County is also implementing a new program to vaccinate individuals who cannot leave their homes.
How does it work?
The Facebook group's mission is to make COVID-19 vaccines more accessible for Black, Indigenous and people of color; elderly people; and the high-risk community.
If someone identifies as being part of the BIPOC community, is 60 years or older, speaks limited English, or has a disability, they can request help with a post using the hashtags “#searching” and “#support.” The group will then connect them with one of its trained volunteers. All volunteers sign nondisclosure agreements so individuals can share personal information in order to schedule an appointment.
Individuals who don’t have access to the internet or Facebook can call the group at 425-780-5785 and leave a voicemail in English or Spanish.
Eliminating language barriers
When Melissa Espinoza’s 77-year-old father-in-law became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, she spent three weeks trying to find him an appointment with no success. She asked her nieces, who both work in health care, if they could help. They were also stumped.
That’s when Espinoza came across the “Find a COVID shot WA” Facebook page. She became a member on a Wednesday, and by Thursday she was able to book appointments for Saturday.
“I was just happy to be able to find this group because I am a big advocate for my family and my community because I’m bilingual,” she says.
Espinoza’s family and community members face many barriers and challenges when accessing COVID vaccines.
“There’s a lot of people with language barriers, economic barriers, just fear, because they are immigrants ... and some might be here undocumented,” she said. There’s also a lack of information in their native language, making it harder for them to navigate the system.
Espinoza is grateful for this Facebook group. Now that a majority of her family is fully vaccinated, they celebrated her father-in-law's 78th birthday this past weekend.
Spanish language sister page
Ivonne Radovich became a volunteer with the Facebook group after she used it to find her mother a vaccine appointment. Now, along with seven other volunteers, she helps run “Encuentra la vacuna contra el COVID, WA,” the Spanish language sister page of “Find a COVID shot WA.”
The page offers more one-on-one assistance since the vaccine sites are all in English. In addition to working in marketing during the day, Radovich tries to book 15 to 20 appointments a day for people. She wants to make sure that everyone who needs help receives it.
“One of the things that I would like to share and get out there, especially for the immigrant community and the Latinos, is we are here to help them,” she says. “There is nothing that prevents somebody from getting the vaccines. There is no requirement to have health insurance, no Social Security number, immigration status is not even a question.”
She also understands that for some people the lack of internet or time hinders them from asking for help.
“We know that a lot of people work the entire day, and they don’t have access to check Facebook during the day,” she says. “We want those people that can go onto Facebook later to reach out to us later [in the night], and we can gather their information, and as soon as we find something for them, we can send them a text or an email, whatever is easier.”
Sharla and Steve’s goal is to find ways to meet people where they are and to keep doing this until they are no longer needed.
“Our goal is to work ourselves to obsolescence,” says Steve.