Staying up late has taken on new meaning for Oak Park mother Michelle Hess and her daughter, Maia. The two have swapped out sleeping to help family, friends, neighbors and other local teens schedule their COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

“It’s become our thing,” Michelle said. 

Every night for the last two months, Michelle and Maia would huddle together with laptops and cellphones in hand, anxiously waiting for CVS Pharmacy and other vaccination sites to drop their list of open dates at midnight. It’s game on when the clock strikes 12, and the pair finds themselves refreshing several web pages until they spot a slot, quickly filling out the online forms before the appointment disappears.

“The appointments go like that,” said Maia, 18, snapping her fingers. “They go ridiculously fast, and you have to get them at the right time.”

When Michelle was tasked to book vaccine appointments for loved ones, she remembered how daunting the process felt. She said some sites were not user-friendly or ask to create individual profiles, but over time and through practice, she learned how to navigate them. Reading every  question and even entering personal information can be time-consuming, and those steps can seem overwhelming to those who aren’t computer savvy or don’t have the time to wait in line online, Maia added.  

Michelle said she later joined a few Facebook groups for vaccine hunters and started setting up vaccine appointments for strangers, and as the vaccine became available to more people, Michelle leaned on Maia for an extra hand.

“Once it opened up to more retail and restaurant workers, I realized a lot of my friends could get appointments,” said Maia, an Oak Park and River Forest High School senior. “I started reaching out to them and asking if anyone needed appointments, and I would get them and their parents’ appointments.”

With teens now included in the pool of eligibility, Maia turned to her boyfriend, JP Rettberg, and their friends and a handful of other parents to aid in the search. Weekend hangouts and date nights, especially for Maia and Rettberg, now include locking in vaccine appointments.

“Especially on weekends, we’ll be together at midnight anyways,” Maia said, laughing. “My mom will be like, ‘Do you guys want to get some appointments?’ We’re like, ‘Yeah. We’re already together, so why not?’”

Each night is different, said 19-year-old Rettberg, a freshman at Triton College. There are times when he and Maia have only a handful of appointments to handle, and other times, they have more than a dozen to manage. That’s when they divvy up the list and loop in other volunteers.  

“It’s super random,” Rettberg said about the number of requests he received. Maia added, “It varies on how many people still need vaccines and also how many appointments actually show up, because obviously there’s a limit to that.”    

To date, Michelle and her army of vaccine hunters have scheduled over 300 COVID-19 vaccine appointments at various sites across the Chicagoland area. Recently, they have led families to a mass vaccination site in Gary, Ind.

With the pandemic still ongoing, Maia and Rettberg spoke candidly about how hard it was for them to not see their family and friends in person. Maia said during the few times she did see her friends last year, she was “super careful” and made sure they could socially distance.

“I was like paranoid all the time like I’m sure everyone was. I got tested a few times just to be sure, because I was so scared,” Maia said, adding she was excited when she completed her vaccination last month.  

As Maia reflected on that feeling of excitement and relief, she thought about her experience with helping others schedule their vaccine appointments in the past weeks and took comfort in seeing that sense of hope and normalcy return.

“I really love seeing people text me back and being like, ‘Oh my god, are you serious?’” Maia said. “I just like seeing how excited they got because they can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”  

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