The scramble to secure a COVID-19 vaccine appointment is chaotic and fierce. There are not yet enough doses for everyone who's eligible and wants to get vaccinated. As frustration rises, the federal government hasn't offered much besides assurances that things will get better and appeals for calm.
Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in partnership with Boston Children's Hospital and Castlight Health, is launching a new tool which allows Americans to search for COVID-19 vaccine providers with stock of vaccine where they live.
The tool, which builds on the existing VaccineFinder.org platform, will capture inventory data from vaccine providers around the country.
In most states, the initial launch is limited to certain providers — those getting vaccine directly from the federal government. In Alaska, Indiana, Iowa, and Tennessee, the tool shows all the vaccine providers, including hospitals, clinics, and public health vaccination sites.
Residents of those four states can look up their cities or zip codes and find an interactive map of all the places administering COVID-19 vaccines and see which ones have vaccine doses in stock.
"The idea is to show where COVID-19 vaccine providers [are] that are open to the public — how to contact them, how to book an appointment, and try to show the daily inventory status so people are clear where there's vaccine and where there isn't," says John Brownstein, the founder of VaccineFinder and Chief Information Officer at Boston Children's Hospital.
After the initial, limited launch, Brownstein says, more providers in more places "are expected to join in the coming days and weeks."
As the pool of eligible people has expanded beyond health care workers and nursing home residents, many states and counties have developed lists or maps of their own to show people which providers are administering shots. Volunteer-run efforts like FindAShot, VaccinateCA and COVIDWA have also sprung up to meet this need.
By contrast, VaccineFinder doesn't require manual input from volunteers — it gathers stock information directly from health care providers, who are supposed to report their inventory every 24 hours.
This does not solve all the problems people currently have when trying to get a COVID-19 vaccine. States and counties still have a patchwork of approaches, with varied eligibility requirements, registration processes, and waitlist systems. And even though you can see on VaccineFinder which providers near you have doses in stock and click through links to appointment sites, you still need to try your luck at a variety of places to actually secure an appointment.
"This is one baby step in the complex numbers of steps people have to take in order to get vaccine, but we hope at least it will help reduce some of the noise and confusion that is out there," says Brownstein.
One concern is that — even though providers are supposed to update their inventory to VaccineFinder every 24 hours — they may not all do so consistently. If that happens, places that appear on the map to have doses in stock might actually not have any, says Claire Hannan, who leads the Association of Immunization Managers.
It's important that the site be reliable, she says, because otherwise people might show up at sites they think have available shots only to be disappointed. It's certainly helpful to see where vaccine supply is in your community, Hannan says, but how useful and reliable the site ends up being remains to be seen.
Jen Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, agrees. "This idea has a lot of potential, but I think there's still some questions about — what will it be like in practice?"
Another issue is that the site doesn't help people who are clamoring for the vaccine but are not yet eligible — the problem of demand, Hannan explains. "It's not connected to a centralized system that would manage the demand and put you in a place in line," she says. "I think that's what's missing."
VaccineFinder is not brand new. It actually began after the H1N1 pandemic nine years ago, Brownstein says, and has been used in the years since to help people find seasonal flu shots, travel shots and whatever other vaccines they might need. "We think that with better convenience and access to vaccines, the more that people will be willing to to get them," he says
Brownstein says a team of about 15 people at Boston Children's Hospital — along with 25 staff at subcontractor Castlight, a digital health company — have been working feverishly to launch the site for COVID-19 vaccines, while navigating the fact that, at the moment, vaccine supply is relatively low and eligibility is limited. These facts both constrain how useful the tool can be at this point.
The supply of coronavirus vaccine doses is increasing. The Biden administration says it's now sending out 14.5 million doses a week to states, an increase of 70% since inauguration. If that trend continues, more slots will be available and more providers like clinics, pharmacies and doctors' offices will be able to begin distributing vaccine doses as well.
When the site is fully launched, Brownstein says, there are plans in the works to share VaccineFinder data about where vaccine providers are located and which have shots available with other online partners.
People will be able to find VaccineFinder's information on sites like Google Maps, Waze or GoodRx, "and those numbers of partners are going to grow," Brownstein says. "So it's not just about coming to the website, but meeting consumers where they are and making sure that anybody who's looking for a vaccine knows where to find them."
If all goes well, Americans can look forward to a time when vaccine doses are abundant and everyone is eligible, and it's easy to find local clinics or pharmacies with vaccine doses nearby, and head over to get a shot.