Covid vaccine signup woes in US prompt a wave of web workarounds


The Getmyvaccine.org website home screen on a laptop computer in New York, US. With no federal website to help out, frustrated private individuals are increasingly creating Facebook groups and Twitter accounts to help friends and neighbors navigate a bewildering, disjointed maze of sites offering limited vaccine appointments. — Bloomberg

Sitting in New York, Erick Katzenstein went online to help his mother, who lives in Delaware, book a vaccine appointment at a Walgreens pharmacy in that state. It was a nearly impossible task, he said.

“I didn’t know if there were no open slots, or if there was one open slot – a needle in the haystack – that I just had to find,” said Katzenstein, a software engineer at Twitter. “No user should have to do that.”

Katzenstein is not alone in his frustration. With no federal website to help out, frustrated private individuals in the US are increasingly creating Facebook groups and Twitter accounts to help friends and neighbours navigate a bewildering, disjointed maze of sites offering limited vaccine appointments. Katzenstein and some others, meanwhile, are taking it a step further, launching private websites that share data nationally.

The Biden administration announced last week it will start a site in May to help locate vaccination sites when all adults are eligible for a vaccine. Katzenstein hopes that means his website – getmyvaccine.org – will be made obsolete, and this “user experience crisis” will be over.

“I never thought I’d witness something like this,” he said by phone. “To make a bottleneck for getting out of this pandemic through user interfaces is something that we can get past.”

Katzenstein launched his site on Jan 27 in the 48 hours after he struggled to get his mother her appointment. The first version showed the availability of appointments by zip code at stores run by Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc, using automated searches on pharmacy websites and additional data.

Collaborations

Since starting up his site, Katzenstein has collaborated with others working on similar websites created by private volunteers including vaccinespotter.org and findashot.org to share data. He’s also added availability at other pharmacies in the federal retail pharmacy programme, including those run by CVS Health Corp, Duane Reade Inc, H-E-B LP, Hy-Vee Inc, Rite Aid Corp, Thrifty White Pharmacy and Walmart Inc.

Walgreens, meanwhile, said they’re fully aware of Katzenstein’s site.

“We feel confident our enhanced vaccine scheduler meets patient needs for information regarding Walgreens vaccination appointments,” said Kelli Teno, a company spokeswoman, in an email. “However, we support any initiative that helps individuals navigate and understand Covid-19 vaccinations and inventory availability.”

The scope of the volunteer push has been quickly widening. Such efforts have arisen in Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Texas and California, home of VaccinateCA.com, one of the earliest volunteer efforts to support the vaccination campaign.

So far, Katzenstein said, his site has received 650,000 views and 100,000 unique users. More recently, Katzenstein has begun posting tongue-in-cheek reviews on the site’s Twitter account, with scores rating the booking interfaces of pharmacy websites.

“I’m particularly drawn to the idea of private companies rolling out a federally-funded vaccine programme,” he said. “To me, there’s more of an obligation on their end to make an efficient booking process.” – Bloomberg

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