Helping people find COVID-19 vaccines is aim of CDC-backed site
By Rebecca Robbins and Shery Gay Stolberg
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, hoping to make it easier for Americans to find COVID-19 vaccines, is backing the test of a centralized online portal where the public can search for nearby vaccination locations with doses on hand.
The website, called Vaccine Finder, is run by Boston Children’s Hospital with the help of several collaborators. It grew out of the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009 and has been used for years to coordinate the distribution of flu and childhood vaccines. It expanded Wednesday to include the availability of coronavirus vaccines in several states.
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. That would make the website far more comprehensive than anything that exists now.
“We’re trying to create a trusted site and bring some order to all this chaos and confusion around availability,” said John Brownstein, a Boston Children’s Hospital researcher who runs VaccineFinder.org.
The project is not a panacea. It will not enable people to book appointments; it simply directs people to other portals where they can try to register to get vaccinated.
Nor does the website address the key constraints — most notably the limited supply of vaccine doses — that are preventing more people from quickly getting shots. And there is a risk that the addition of yet another vaccine website will only exacerbate the current confusion.
“It’s not a tool that’s going to necessarily make things easier for people to get the vaccine,” said Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers. “They’re going to see where vaccine is, but they’re still going to have challenges trying to get an appointment.”
After a rocky start, the vaccination campaign in the United States has accelerated in recent weeks. Seventeen percent of adults have received a first dose, and 7.6% are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. That puts the government well on the way to fulfilling President Joe Biden’s promise that at least 100 million vaccine doses would be administered in the United States by his 100th day in office; he has since raised that target to 150 million doses.
Despite the progress, though, getting appointments for vaccinations has been a source of great frustration for many people. Appointment slots are filled within minutes of becoming available. States, local health departments and pharmacy chains have their own sign-up websites that in many cases do not share data with one another. The CDC has its own vaccine administration management system, or VAMS, which some states are using to have people register for vaccinations and to collect essential data, but state officials have complained that it is clunky.
Exasperated people have taken matters into their own hands, creating online navigator tools and “vaccine hunter” Facebook groups in cities like Los Angeles and New Orleans to help connect people with available doses.
When the Vaccine Finder portal goes live this week, it will include some drugstores and grocery stores nationwide, plus many other locations, like mass-vaccination sites, in Alaska, Indiana, Iowa and Tennessee.
Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the CDC, said the agency was encouraging vaccination locations to “provide accurate and up-to-date information on location, hours and availability of vaccines, so Americans can find vaccine sites easier.”
Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said, “I think people are optimistic and eagerly awaiting it.” He continued, “As with anything that we roll out in the middle of this pandemic, if there are glitches it could end up creating a lot of confusion, but I think we’ll just have to work through it.”
The federal government did not create a centralized sign-up system for the vaccine rollout, and states have been slow to set up their own. In that void, counties, local health departments, pharmacy chains and other vaccine providers started their own appointment-booking websites, in some cases adapting systems they already had and in others buying new tools from vendors.
These systems are often not synchronized to share information like which people have registered on their websites. That has frustrated state and local health officials, who cannot cross off their lists people who have secured an appointment at a different location after registering on multiple systems.
“It’s harder to track vaccination appointments and offer them to people who need it most when the systems are so disjointed,” said Blaire Bryant, associate legislative director for health for the National Association of Counties.
The Vaccine Finder allows people to enter their ZIP code, the distance they’re willing to travel and which of the authorized vaccines they are seeking.
That information generates a map dotted with nearby vaccination locations, with links to appointment-booking websites set up by states, local health departments and pharmacy chains. Vaccine providers can opt out of being highlighted on Vaccine Finder. For example, a provider might opt out if it is only vaccinating a certain slice of the population like health care workers.
The website will show which places have doses available, based on data that vaccine locations are supposed to report daily. The need to report that information daily “could be a big lift and lead to varying degrees of accuracy in the system,” said Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of City and County Health Officials. “As with anything, the value will be in the quality of the data provided,” she added.