@IAVaccineAlerts: Helping Iowans Get Their Shots

As COVID-19 vaccines in Iowa become widely available, community members have committed to help others find appointments.

Rebecca Michaeli, Reporter

During times of crisis, some individuals emerge as leaders of their communities. 

Brian Finley is an application developer at the University of Iowa. What took Finley from a web developer to what some are calling a “hero” was the creation of a Twitter account that continues to help thousands of Iowans as the pandemic persists.

“When [people] get their vaccine appointment, they’re able to take a deep breath that they’ve been holding in since the pandemic started. It’s a little bit of positivity in what has been a pretty dreary year and a half almost,” Finley said.

Finley and some of his family members became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine on March 8, when the state began to expand eligibility requirements, but was having a difficult time finding an open appointment. This is what inspired him to create a platform which would aid Iowans experiencing similar situations. The social media account went public on March 10, and by that night had gained 800 followers. The subsequent weekend, the follower count had climbed to over 10,000.

When [people] get their vaccine appointment, they’re able to take a deep breath that they’ve been holding in since the pandemic started. It’s a little bit of positivity in what has been a pretty dreary year and a half almost.”

— Brian Finley

Finley’s account frequently posts updated lists of locations in Iowa where there is vaccine appointment availability.

“HyVee’s website only lets you search [for an appointment] in a 10 mile radius, so I dug into the code on their website and found a way to expand that search to include the whole state. I kept it running in the background, refreshing every few minutes, and when I found a new appointment I had it play sound so I could jump on,” Finley explained. “After I got my folks’ appointments, I tried to find a way to get it onto Twitter to help other people, and then it took off.”

The codes that Finley has written and adopted search the CVS, Hyvee, Walgreens, and Walmart websites for open availability every three to four minutes. If any information changes from the last tweet that was posted, a new one will automatically post with updated appointment information.

“Appointments in the bigger cities in Iowa go real quick. A lot of the rural areas stay there for a long time. I’ve seen some of those openings for days, which is kind of frustrating. I think in some of those areas there is some vaccine hesitancy, whether that’s political messaging or distrust in the system for some reason. But in urban areas, appointments snatch up quickly,” Finley said.

On April 6, all Iowans aged 16 and over became eligible for the vaccine, regardless of pre-existing conditions or profession. Then on April 19, President Joe Biden announced that every American aged 16 and over is qualified to receive the vaccine. 

“It makes me excited for some communities that will be inching a bit closer towards ‘normal’. The more people who get the vaccine, the closer we can get to herd immunity,” Finley said.

Finley has also set up Twitter accounts to help those in Illinois, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, in addition to the Iowa account that currently has over 26 thousand followers.

Finley urges all Iowans who make a vaccine appointment to keep it. Oftentimes, people find appointments closer to them than the initial appointment they scheduled. If this does happen, Finley encourages keeping the original location, even if it means driving further to receive the shot.

“For example, every time a HyVee appointment gets cancelled, a pharmacist has to go to a manually curated list and try to call someone to see if they can come in earlier. At one point they were getting 40 cancellations a day and pharmacists have to take time out of their day to try to fill them,” Finley said. “It’s putting stress on [pharmacists], and I really don’t want to make their lives harder, when they’re trying to save ours.”

Replies to the informational tweets are filled with Iowans thanking Finley and declaring that they will be “happily unfollowing” the account. Finley has been recognized by local politicians in addition to the community for the work he has done and the lives he has impacted.   

“It’s cool to see that people are noticing and recognizing what’s going on, but part of me doesn’t feel like it’s that huge of a deal, what I’m doing,” Finley said. “My wife is a nurse at the [University of Iowa] Children’s Hospital, and the stuff that they have gone through for the past year and a half now is so much harder and has been so much more impactful than me with a little Twitter account. In my head, it doesn’t compare to what they’ve done.”

Not only has the creation of one Twitter account impacted tens of thousands of lives, but a lasting community has been built.

“The [story] that stuck closest to me was when a woman pointed out my page to her seven year old daughter, as an example of the Mr. Rogers, ‘when things get scary look for the helpers’, sort of holding me up as one of the helpers,” Finley shared.

This story became the inspiration for Raygun’s new “Be a Helper” shirt, as a way of showing thanks for Finley’s work. All profits made from the shirts go to the United Way of Central Iowa, United Way of East Central Iowa, and the Iowa Public Health Association.

“In a perfect world I would be able to just stop the account, but I don’t think I’ll ever delete it, in case in the future there’s a need for booster shots or anything. It’s not a huge amount of effort on my part to keep it running, so I definitely want to keep this going as long as there’s a need. It would seem kind of selfish to pull it down,” Finley said.

In addition to the Iowa Vaccine Alerts Twitter account locating available vaccines, multiple Iowans have come forward to manually help others to find appointments.

“One woman and her friend have gotten upwards of 600 or 700 people vaccine appointments, with the average age of those people being over 55. It helps calm any worries about taking vaccines from older populations,” Finley said.

Two Iowa City high-schoolers have also stepped up to act as “helpers” for those around them. Misha Canin ‘22 from West High and Lydia Karr ‘22 from City High have worked to find as many appointments for others as they can.

“I was helping out people in my neighborhood. I have some people living near me that are older and at high risk that were looking for a vaccine, and I started out by offering to help them. After finding Iowa Vaccine Alerts, it became pretty easy to get appointments quickly with notifications on,” Canin said.

Once Canin began helping find vaccinations for others, the people she helped would share her contact information with more people, and eventually a web of communication was built. It became overwhelming to individually communicate with so many people, so Canin created a Google Form where those looking for appointment assistance can easily fill out.

“I usually check the form every morning, and I will make a list of the cities that I need vaccines from. I have that hanging on my desk when I’m doing online school in case a notification comes in. I also have them listed in priority. I usually do first-come first-serve, but if someone tells me they have a pre-existing condition or they’re over 65, then I’ll usually prioritize that,” Canin explained. “Late at night, I’ve noticed a lot of them come in. The other day, I just took a nap for three hours and then stayed up until almost a.m., and was able to get six or seven appointments overnight.”

Lydia Karr ‘22 also uses the Iowa Vaccine Alerts account to schedule vaccination appointments. Karr is a childcare provider, and after using the Twitter notifications to find her vaccine appointment, she began booking appointments for others, and has since helped over 55 people get their shots.

“I’m just happy that I can help people because I know that this is something that a lot of people are working on, and I have the time and like the ability to do it. I’m just glad we can get shots in people’s arms because honestly, that’s the quickest way we’re going to get back to normal,” Karr said. “A lot of people try to send me things, but I’m just trying to help. I don’t need anything for it. For me, it’s so much easier than it is for people who struggle with technology, so I just feel like I’m able to do it and I have the time, so I might as well try.”

Finley, Canin, and Karr all describe experiencing a gratifying emotion after knowing that they have helped someone in this time of need. 

“My neighbor had cancer recently, and I was able to get her an appointment super close by. That was really exciting because that’s helping someone who’s at higher risk. There are a lot of older people living in my neighborhood, so that’s been super rewarding. I just imagine that people might have grandkids or other family that are probably super relieved,” Canin said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 Data Tracker, almost 46% of United States citizens have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination, while over 34% of the country is considered fully vaccinated.

“It’s been very hard to feel hopeful in the United States this past year. But what’s happening right now, seeing that every day millions of people [are getting vaccinated], it’s just hope that we can have some sense of normalcy back,” Karr said.

It’s been very hard to feel hopeful in the United States this past year. But what’s happening right now, seeing that every day millions of people [are getting vaccinated], it’s just hope that we can have some sense of normalcy back.”

— Lydia Karr, City High Junior

As of April 19, 2021, President Joe Biden declared that every American aged 16 and older is eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccination. If you or anyone you know is looking to book an appointment, Finley shared some tips.

“If you’re able to turn on push alerts for the account, that’s great. I would recommend probably only doing it when you’re near a computer, otherwise it could get to be a little much. If you’re a night owl there’s usually some refreshing going on between midnight and 3 a.m. Otherwise, if you’re having trouble, my DMs are open and I can help you get connected with somebody that can help,” Finley said.