Feb. 17, 2021 -- By the end of July, there should be enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to inoculate every adult in America. But as of Tuesday, just more than 71.5 million doses had been distributed, and more than 55 million of those shots had already been given. With more than 200 million adults in the U.S., finding an appointment seems to require a combination of persistence, technological savvy, and luck.
Enter a handful of homegrown techie superheroes. They’re stepping in to create websites, apps, and bots that find appointments for you.
Crowdsourcing Meets Technology
Olivia Adams is a software developer in Arlington, MA. When family members had trouble finding appointments, she spent part of her maternity leave building a site that offers one-stop shopping to frustrated vaccine hunters. Her automated system scrapes appointment information from a jumble of other sites -- official government sites, supermarkets, and more -- to let users know what’s open at the moment.
“The state just had a list of all possible locations with no insight into availability, and it seemed like each location had their own website and unique process for booking an appointment,” she said via email. “No wonder people were having trouble!”
As word spreads about the site, Adams is watching the stats grow. “I’m averaging about 100 hits per minute during the day,” she said. “And I receive an email every few hours from someone saying that they were finally able to book an appointment.”
In Georgia, similar problems motivated Ben Warlick: He ran into trouble signing up his parents and in-laws. An attorney by trade, Warlick had previously built a website that scanned government websites for information about permits and other local issues. “I realized I could use the tech I’d already worked with to harvest data, and set it up to check sites for open appointments every few minutes and notify me,” he says. The next day, he got an alert that Fulton County, where his mother-in-law lives, had shots available. She scored an appointment, and Warlick realized his idea could help others.
He put together a text-based interface called the Georgia Vax App. To use it, Georgia residents can text the word VAX to 844-554-4024 and enter their county and priority phase. They’ll receive an alert when they qualify for open appointments, so they won’t have to sort through all the possibilities themselves. Although it doesn’t yet have information for every county, so far more than 40,000 users have signed up.
The response has been so huge, Warlick is planning to charge for extra sign-ups in order to cover his costs: “There’s a fee for every text message you send,” he says. “When I started, it wasn’t significant, but tens of thousands becomes significant.” Your home county is free, but if you want information about neighboring counties, supermarkets, and pharmacies, you’ll pay $5 for each.
Another kind of site seeks to help prevent wasted doses, since the vaccine expires quickly. Signing up at Dr. B., created by the founder of medical appointment site ZocDoc, puts you on a standby list ranked by priority group and location. If you receive an alert, you’ll have 15 minutes to confirm that you can make it to the provider within 2 hours.
Not Reaching the Vulnerable?
Heartwarming as all these efforts are, though, critics say they still don’t really help the people who need it most. In order to access most of the sites, you’ll need either a smartphone or a computer, which typically aren’t as widespread among the elderly and in low-income communities.
“We need call centers. We need people going out into the community door-to-door, registering people as if there were a census,” Jeffrey Klausner, MD, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, told Kaiser Health News. “You need to somewhat structure the system to allow and prioritize access for the most disadvantaged -- reversing structural racism, or factors that exclude certain groups.”
The Biden administration is working to address this issue. Starting this week, the Health Resources and Services Administration and the CDC are sending a limited number of vaccines directly to HRSA-funded health centers. The focus will be on centers that specialize in caring for disproportionately affected communities, like people experiencing homelessness, public housing residents, and migrant farmworkers.
While the kinks continue to be worked out in the vaccine distribution system, individuals and grassroots organizations will find ways to offer support. “I’m sure the state [of Massachusetts] has enough on its plate other than to try to retroactively fix this sign-up issue,” says Adams. “But I'm glad that I and others across the country have had the time to try to remedy the situation.”