This website wants to centralize vaccine appointments for the entire country
A screenshot from VaccineFinder on 2/25/21 at 10:31am
Finding a vaccine appointment in New York has not been easy, to say the least. Providers are scheduling through various websites, most of which require you to fill out a pre-screening form every time you want to check availability. So unless you get lucky or are able to sit behind the computer all day, it can feel like a daunting process. That’s why here in New York City, a local software engineer built a website called TurboVax that updates all availabilities in real-time. I personally have used this site to schedule for friends, and it’s a life-saver. What about everywhere else, though? VaccineFinder, a CDC-backed website run by epidemiologists and software developers at Boston Children’s Hospital, is hoping to create a “centralized online portal where the public can search for nearby vaccination locations with doses on hand,” according to the New York Times. But is this really feasible?
TurboVax was launched in January by Huge Ma, a 31-year-old software engineer for Airbnb, reported the New York Times. After trying to make his mother an appointment and realizing how decentralized and messy the process was, he decided to create an easier system. In just two weeks and for less than $50, he built TurboVax, culling availability data from the three main city and state vaccine systems. It updates in real-time, so you can either keep hitting refresh on the webpage or follow the Twiter account.
Another local website, NYC Vaccine List, came out of someone’s exhaustive search for vaccines for her grandparents. This site also shows real-time availability for city, state, and private locations. According to the Times, “About 20 volunteers write code, reach out to community organizations and call inoculation centers directly to post the centers’ availabilities.” Both sites allow you to click through to the various appointment providers, which saves precious time when such appointments can often get booked in mere seconds.
But what makes both of these websites truly unique, and, quite frankly, super effective, is that they don’t require buy-in from any of the providers they’re listing. They both “scrape” data from various other webpages, meaning the developers have written code to extract the appointment availabilities from the city and state websites and channel them into their centralized websites.
The national VaccineFinder proposal will not operate this way. As the New York Times explains, “If the program goes well, the website’s developers plan to expand it nationwide in coming weeks to include nearly all vaccine providers that agree to be featured.”
We can see the challenges this presents on a smaller scale here in New York City. More than two months after the city began its vaccination efforts, Mayor de Blasio is still trying to streamline the online appointment process. Just last week, he announced a revised website that will be available in 10 languages and “include all vaccine distributors that are partnering with the city.” This still omits any private providers that choose to opt-out.
But the VaccineFinder effort is still the most comprehensive of anything we’ve seen nationally. It will be especially important in states that don’t have as robust an online infrastructure as New York. The website was actually created in 2009 during the H1N1 flu pandemic and has since been used as a resource for coordinating flu and routine vaccines. They are now temporarily suspending these services and focusing solely on COVID-19 vaccinations, an effort for which they’ve received $8 million in federal funding. Dr. John Brownstein, a researcher at the Boston Children’s Hospital who runs VaccineFinder, told the Times: “We’re trying to create a trusted site and bring some order to all this chaos and confusion around availability.”
In New York, VaccineFinder currently only lists available appointments at pharmacies like Walgreens and Rite Aid. When we clicked on a Walgreens location near Union Square, it told us that the availability information was last updated 17 hours ago. It’s unclear how often the site will be updated when it’s fully functional, but unless it’s by-the-minute, at least here in New York, it seems an unreliable tool. The first phase that is launching this week will include more comprehensive information like mass-vaccination sites for select states including Alaska, Indiana, Iowa, and Tennessee.
Like the websites described above, VaccineFinder is not a portal to make vaccine appointments, but a resource to centralize availability. Users will be able to click through to the various providers to make the appointments. Therefore, Dr. Brownstein explained to the Times that the website is meant to complement a given state’s individual efforts. So will we ever get to a place where we’re not keeping multiple tabs open and constantly hitting fresh in the hopes of snagging a coveted appointment?