A "vaccination super station" for health-care workers in San Diego. Photo: mike blake/Reuters By Katie Deighton Close Katie Deighton
After a week of unsuccessful attempts to book an appointment for a Covid-19 vaccine, Katie Solovey’s parents turned to her for help.
The 34-year-old’s parents spend their winters in Siesta Key, Fla., part of Sarasota County, which is using Eventbrite Inc.’s ticketing platform to schedule vaccine appointments. The platform is familiar to Ms. Solovey, but not to some older people including her parents, who are in their 70s, she said. Her father was also using a first-generation iPad on a shaky wireless connection, making it hard to enter all the information required before the system timed him out.
Ms. Solovey booked their appointments herself, using multiple tabs to maximize her chances for desirable appointments and enlisting her husband to do the same.
“We’re trying to get this vulnerable group vaccinated against a deadly virus and we’re doing it the same way that I got ‘Hamilton’ tickets at the Kennedy Center,” Ms. Solovey said.
Officials around the U.S. are rushing to distribute Covid-19 vaccinations amid a surge in infections, but are off to a slower start than hoped. Although more than 25.4 million vaccine doses have been distributed, just 8.9 million Americans have gotten a shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The U.S. has taken a decentralized approach to vaccination, with county and state governments handling the task of getting doses from cold storage into people’s arms. Their systems for booking vaccinations need to be easily accessible to everybody, including those with disabilities and people without access to a computer or the internet. In the rush, officials are trying different paths—and making course corrections.
Sarasota County plans on moving away from Eventbrite to a system of its own, a spokesman said.
Mississippi this month introduced a web-based app that lets residents check whether they are currently eligible for the vaccine and book appointments at its 18 drive-through vaccination centers. The University of Mississippi Medical Center built the system using the architecture it previously designed for the state’s Covid-19 test booking tool, said Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi’s state health officer.
Other authorities, such as Hunterdon County in New Jersey and Massachusetts’ health department are building location and booking services using platforms such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google Maps and SignUpGenius Inc., a software tool for event management.
While many online platforms have a well-established process for ticket registrations, their interfaces aren’t intuitive for everybody.
“The assumption that’s been made is that people are already familiar with these platforms,” said Stanley Hines Jr., a user experience designer at Stink Studios, an advertising agency.
Phone lines provide an alternative in some cases. Mississippians who can’t or don’t want to use the internet to book can dial a hotline to schedule a drive-through appointment or circumvent the centralized system altogether by contacting vaccinating health-care providers directly to schedule, Dr. Dobbs said. Alabama last week introduced a Covid-19 vaccine scheduling hotline for key workers and those aged 75 and over.
But hotlines can be fallible. Alabama’s received 1.1 million calls on its first day of operation, meaning many who were eligible for the vaccine couldn’t get through, the state’s health department said. The state said it plans to introduce an online booking system to complement the phone number.
Similarly, the Department of Health in Florida’s Brevard County opted to use Eventbrite after its hotline to book vaccinations crashed on Jan. 5, said Jesi Ray, the county’s social media, marketing and communications specialist.
Eventbrite can process a high amount of traffic at once and is easy for most people with digital literacy to use, she said. Eventbrite is also accessible to the blind, deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, Ms. Ray said.
“We are actively exploring how our platform can best support the effort to increase access to vaccines,” said an Eventbrite spokesperson. States that use the service do so on a self-service basis and don’t pay a fee, the company added.
But relying exclusively on Eventbrite means Brevard is less likely to reach underprivileged communities and elderly people with little technical knowledge, Ms. Ray said. “It is not lost on us that there’s a portion of our residents that are being left out,” she said.
Brevard will look for other methods to make the vaccine appointments available, including bringing back a phone line as an alternative, Ms. Ray said.
More companies and organizations are gearing up to join the vaccination scheduling effort.
CVS Health Corp. , which last month administered Covid-19 vaccinations to nursing home residents, said it would eventually offer the vaccine at most of its nearly 10,000 pharmacies across the country. CVS has built a booking system that will go live on its website and app when vaccines come to stores, a spokesman said. It is also planning a dedicated 800 number to let people call for appointments.
Meanwhile VaccineFinder, a CDC-supported platform that lets people locate vaccine centers via an interactive map, is preparing to add Covid-19 vaccine shots to its nationwide dataset once they become available for the broader population.
“States are under-resourced, and don’t necessarily have the resources to build websites to support a vaccine rollout,” said John Brownstein, chief innovation officer of Boston Children’s Hospital and founder of VaccineFinder. “So we need to provide them with as many tools as possible.”
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