Volunteers Create the First COVID-19 Vaccine Availability Database

The U.S. is currently administering around 1 million shots of the COVID-19 vaccine a day, but that doesn’t mean the process is going well. Of the roughly 48 million doses that have been distributed, only 47.8% have been administered. Many people who are eligible for the vaccine are having trouble getting their hands on a shot. 

We know that at least 6.7% of the U.S. population has received at least one shot of the two-dose vaccine, but only 1.1% have gotten both. States like Alaska and West Virginia have either surpassed or are about to surpass the 10% threshold, but large states like New York and California continue to fall short.

So, why are all these shots sitting around the shelf when they could be shielding people from disease?

A group of tech-savvy volunteers has come together to solve the problem.

Getting a Shot in CA

Getting vaccinated in California can be a challenge, and residents were tired of sitting around waiting for information. Tim Schwartz, 67, of San Francisco remembers hearing on the nightly news that people like him were eligible to receive the vaccine.

However, when he called his local doctor’s office, they weren’t taking appointments. He got the same response from his pharmacist. When he started searching around the internet for clues, he came up empty-handed. He couldn’t even find information on the website for the local health department. “Nobody’s calling me, emailing me, telling me I’m eligible for anything,” he told NPR.

He wasn’t the only one having trouble.

The issue soon caught the attention of Patrick McKenzie, a tech worker living in Tokyo with ties to the Golden State. To make sure the available vaccines get into people’s arms, he posted on Twitter, “One of the best things that I could imagine a technologist spending time on right now is calling the places that could have the vaccine and putting who says yes in a single place.”

His massive following quickly responded; and soon, hundreds of volunteers had come together to create VaccinateCA.net, a website that connects residents to facilities currently giving out the vaccines.

Manish Goregaokar, a software engineer at Google who worked on the project, told a local news outlet, “People should come together and make things work. We shouldn’t have to wait for someone else to do it.”

And they didn’t.

If you go to the website, just enter your ZIP code, select a county, and you will see a list of facilities in your area administering the drug.

The website is backed by a group of over 250 volunteers. They spend their time calling thousands of hospitals, pharmacies, and doctor’s offices to verify that they are indeed giving out shots. It also tells you who’s eligible for the vaccine, considering these requirements can change from county to county.

Zoelle Egner, another engineer behind the website, said, “I have a mother who is over the age of 65 who has also been looking for a vaccine. There are people in my community who are also struggling with this.”

The website has only been up and running for a couple of days, and new providers and facilities are being added every day. As more people spread the word, the creators are hoping to help the state administer 100% of its doses as fast as possible.

Streamlining the Vaccination Process

The project arose out of a systemic lack of information, and California isn’t alone. The CDC is keeping track of the number of doses distributed and administered, but this doesn’t help people access the actual drug.

People all over the country struggle with making an appointment. Some seniors and eligible individuals may have trouble calling dozens of different locations in their area.

Similar projects are in the works in Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.

According to Dr. Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association, “If you go to those sites, you get much more accurate data in a more timely way than even the federal government’s delivering, at least today.”

The Biden Administration says it’s trying to ramp up the vaccination process, but as for creating a nationalized database, we’re still a long way off.

Dr. Benjamin says the project speaks to the power of ordinary citizens. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen private citizens step up when the federal government didn’t rise to the occasion. “I think this citizen engagement is here to stay,” he added.

As exciting as this new venture may be, there are limits to working with volunteers. Without the government, there’s no one there to verify information.

Having a more coordinated response could help resolve this issue. “So that means communicating with trusted messengers. That means flyers. That means radio, TV. That means social media,” said Dr. Benjamin.

As for McKenzie, he’s proud of what he and his team have been able to achieve in such a short period of time. “I have never worked on anything that feels as important as what we have done in the last week, and I hope that we are able to do it much faster over the next week,” he added.

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