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Pivoting to a New Pandemic Pain Point

Alum’s Vaccine Hunter Group Now Finds COVID-19 Tests

By Liam Farrell

boxes of COVID-19 self-tests (rapid antigen tests)

Elliot Hazzard ’17 founded the Facebook group Maryland Vaccine Hunters, which has evolved into a hub for followers across the state to share information on where to find COVID-19 test kits and appointments.

Photo by iStock

First came the unwelcome holiday gift of the Omicron coronavirus variant. It blew up long-awaited gatherings of families and friends and sent many people into quarantine, their beds or, in some cases, the hospital.

But then another panic followed, as all varieties of COVID-19 tests became rarer than a new PlayStation 5. Anyone needing one had to brace for hours-long lines, fruitless searches for appointments or boxes of rapid tests online, and empty shelves at store after store.

Elliot Hazzard headshot

For University of Maryland graduate Elliot Hazzard ’17, this was another opportunity—and a responsibility. As the founder of the Facebook group Maryland Vaccine Hunters, Hazzard and a group of volunteers had helped collect appointments and direct people to shots when the vaccines first became available last February.

“We thought that the need for testing was so great that we were going to expand our focus,” Hazzard said.

Last month, the group began crowdsourcing information on stores that had rapid tests in stock and places with open appointments for the more accurate, but more labor-intensive, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. The page gained more than 3,000 new followers between the end of December and mid-January, bringing the community to nearly 80,000 members.

And just like with the group’s earlier work on finding vaccines, the posts and comments are a productive discussion—rare these days when social media collides with COVID-19: “I just found these (tests) at the Walgreen’s in Timonium … The girl behind the counter said not too many people know (they) are there and they usually do not get a lot of them;” “Clarks ACE Hardware Ellicott City has kits;” “I really appreciate you taking the time to gather this information and post it. You are the best.”

“It’s really a very positive online community,” said Hazzard, whose site also reports the state’s community transmission rate by county each day and has posted tips about how to avoid buying counterfeit N95 and KN95 masks. “It’s full of a lot of great people who want to do everything they can to get information out.”

There is some hope that the squeeze on testing resources will ease soon; the Omicron variant has been likened to a flash flood in its swiftly increasing and then decreasing impacts in other countries, and some states where it first took hold are registering declining case counts. The federal government started offering up to four free tests per household today through COVIDtests.gov, but most Americans won’t receive them until the end of this month.

Hazzard, who graduated with a degree in geographic information systems, is also still working as a GIS technician with BGE, although his experience with the Facebook group has given him valuable experience and a potential seed for continued public health work.

“I hope that I can help a huge number of people like this in the future in some way,” he said.

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Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.