Standing before a phalanx of cameras and flanked by a congressman and a mayoral candidate, Huge Ma (a.k.a. TurboVax, a.k.a. “Vax Daddy”) seemed at a loss for words. Although everyone at the event in Washington Heights knew who he was, he had introduced himself with a sheepish wave and started by thanking the city’s doctors and nurses, who he called the “real heroes” of the pandemic.
“This is a weird moment for me,” he said, standing in front of the Fort Washington Armory, one of the city’s newest vaccination sites. “I never planned to get involved or mixed up in all this,” he added. “I have always just been following my gut from the beginning.”
More than a year into the pandemic in New York City, Ma has become an unexpected and demure civic hero that many New Yorkers have heard of but few may recognize.
As the (by now well-told) story goes, the 31-year-old software engineer for Airbnb built a free website at the beginning of the year that aggregates vaccine appointment times from city and state websites. He did so after trying to book an appointment for his mother, realizing that a person needed to spend an excruciating amount of time filling out and refreshing forms on multiple sites. Particularly early on, the government-run sites became overloaded and did not properly function.
I have nothing but respect for our govt IT teams (who are working v hard during difficult times), but we should expect a basic level of service. Asking that links direct to the right vax site should not be something that any of us should be advocating forhttps://t.co/OgJ1CJgRtb
— TurboVax (@turbovax) April 6, 2021
Since creating TurboVax, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have credited Ma for helping them find vaccine appointments. On Tuesday, the New Yorker made his first public remarks at the invitation of Bronx Congressman Ritchie Torres and mayoral candidate Andrew Yang. The event was politically staged by Yang’s campaign, for which Torres serves as the co-chair.
But the attention was squarely on Ma, who did not endorse Yang but said he was watching to hear what all the candidates had to say.
He was humble almost to a fault, sounding perplexed at his fame.
“When I built TurboVax, I just wanted to make the vaccine process simpler,” he told reporters. “That’s it.”
Ma has also used his platform to speak out against anti-Asian violence, and to raise money for Chinatown businesses that have struggled to stay afloat amid the public health crisis.
“Many others have built tools. Many others have spoken out against hateful rhetoric,” he said. “But for whatever reason, or whatever luck, I am the one here standing being recognized today.”
Huge Ma, aka @turbovax, spoke briefly. He speaks of being an accidental hero who never expected this kind of attention. “Many others have built tools,” he says, “But for whatever reason I’m the one standing here being recognized today.” pic.twitter.com/kAMIGUED5Q
— Elizabeth Kim (@lizkimtweets) April 6, 2021
And other New Yorkers have been helping, as Ma noted — the most famous website after TurboVax is NYC Vaccine List, which compiles appointments from more than 50 vaccination sites. One of its volunteers, a Brooklynite named Carolyn Ruvkun, also tweets out appointments at @nycshotslots.
Ruvkun, who has booked more than a hundred vaccine appointments for others, was recently profiled by the New Yorker.
Ma gave a shoutout to those other volunteers, while noting, “I firmly believe that technology when done right can really improve society.”
He added, “I’m looking forward to learning how Andrew and the other mayoral candidates intend to use tech to help rebuild our city and also empower other civically minded citizens so that they too can also build their TurboVaxes.”
Ma declined any interviews, although when asked about his remarks in a New York magazine story about wanting to tackle bike lanes next, he replied, “I think everyone should have access to safe and efficient transportation.”
After the press conference was over, he accepted an invitation from Yang to have lunch with him at Malecon, a nearby Dominican restaurant. But not before inquiring whether members of the press would be accompanying them. He was assured they would not, and was whisked away by a member of Yang’s campaign.
It was one of the rare days when Yang’s fame was eclipsed by another Asian American in the city. Earlier, Yang had quipped that Ma was “now on the shortlist of people that my wife Evelyn is allowed to leave me for.”