Big Ma, a 31-year-old software engineer at Airbnb, was stunned when he tried to schedule an appointment for a coronavirus vaccine for his mother in early January and saw dozens of websites, each with their own login protocol, needing to be checked . The appointment systems for city and state were completely different.
“There has to be a better way,” he said, remembering the thought.
So he developed one. In less than two weeks, he launched TurboVax, a free website that compiles the availability of the three vaccine systems in New York’s three major cities and states and sends the information to Twitter in real time. It cost Mr. Ma less than $ 50 to build, but it provides an easier way to identify dates than the official city and state systems.
“It’s kind of a challenge for me to prove what a person can do with time and a little motivation,” he said last week. “This was not a priority for governments, which was unfortunate. But everyone has a role to play in the pandemic, and I’m doing as little as I can to make it a bit easier. “
Supply shortages and access to vaccination appointments were some of the barriers to the fair distribution of the vaccine in New York City and the United States, officials recognized.
Statistics recently released by the city showed that the vaccine was flowing disproportionately to white New Yorkers, not the black and brown communities that suffered the most in the first wave of the pandemic.
For example, only 12 percent of the city’s 210,000 or so residents who are over 65 years old and vaccinated were black, even though 24 percent of the city’s population are black.
“The only way to access these appointments is by using a very, very complicated technology platform that, in and of itself, marginalizes the older community I serve,” said Eboné Carrington, executive director of Harlem Hospital , at the end of last month. As a result, white people from outside Harlem would have occupied most of their available seats for weeks.
Some volunteers in New York, as well as in states like Texas, California, and Massachusetts have tried to use their technological skills to make this process easier.
Jeremy Novich, 35, a clinical psychologist on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, began reaching out to seniors after discovering that his older relatives could not have made their own appointments.
“The system is designed as a technology race between 25 and 85 year olds,” he said. “This is not a race, this is elderly neglect.”
Together with two friends, he founded the Vaccine Appointment Assistance Team on January 12th, a personal campaign that initially helped elderly people from local synagogues and expanded to include those who register via a telephone hotline or a web form. Due to high demand, the service, which now has 20 volunteer case workers, has not added any new cases for the time being, and the founders are considering working with a nonprofit organization to increase capacity.
The most ambitious online volunteer in town is NYC Vaccine List, a website that compiles appointments from more than 50 vaccination sites – city, state, and private. Approximately 20 volunteers code, reach out to community organizations, and call vaccination centers directly to post center availability.
Dan Benamy, a software developer for Datadog and a co-founder of NYC Vaccine List, said when he was looking for dates for his grandparents last month, he was impressed with how busy the appointment system was.
Apr. 9, 2021, 9:36 p.m. ET
“I’m an engineer and an optimizer, so I looked at this and said maybe we could try to pull this data together and aggregate it so it would be faster and easier to find vaccines,” he said.
Mr. Benamy turned to a few friends and got to work. The site went live five days later on January 16.
Inspired by VaccinateCA, a volunteer-run vaccine finder website in California, the NYC Vaccine List not only lists available appointments in cities and states, but also allows users to click more directly on some available appointments, saving valuable minutes in one slot could be left to someone else.
In its effectiveness, the site also offers real-time insight into how brutally competitive the appointment process can be. For example, at 2:30 p.m. on Jan. 28, hundreds of openings appeared, including 45 at the city’s Brooklyn Army Marine Terminal and many more at a city-run location in the Bronx. They were gone within 15 minutes.
These websites don’t solve all access problems as they still require computer skills and only benefit those who know about them. On February 8, the NYC Vaccine List was seeing roughly 16,000 daily visitors, which, according to the founders, is still a fraction of the millions of skilled New Yorkers who need appointments.
However, by making the process more efficient, the websites make it easier for hundreds of people who have struggled to find a place. Her Twitter feed has been flooded with thank you messages, and the NYC Vaccine List has been named “the hottest website” in town by a councilor Mark Levine. You recently added a Google translation feature to the website.
“As the number of volunteers increases and we get these basic pieces up and running, we’d love to make them available to as many people as possible,” said Benamy, 36, who lives in Brooklyn.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to improve the scheduling system, which he recently described as “too cumbersome” in a press conference, and the city upgraded one of its key planning sites last week to be more user-friendly.
Both the city and the state also offer the option of making an appointment by phone. The state’s hotline recently added a special option for people aged 75 and over, as well as a callback service. However, the operators of these hotlines make appointments in the same city or state centers, where most appointments are made by those using the web-based first come, first served system.
Software developers who peeked under the hood of a few public planning sites were surprised to see how chaotic it was back there. Paul Schreiber, 42, a freelance software engineer based in Brooklyn, said he was upset at finding misspellings and other errors in the code of the vaccine hub, which is operated by the city health department for the first month. The new website, launched on February 1st, appeared to be “a lot better”.
“Even rated on a very generous curve – well, this is a government website, it’s not Amazon.com – it was really bad,” he said.
Mr Schreiber has done some preliminary work to set up his own event site and has considered how he can integrate the updates into the site operated by the city.
Some of the technological help came by chance.
Adriana Scamparini, 45, a corporate attorney who lives in the Gramercy area of Manhattan, spent 18 hours trying to put her father on an appointment. After doing this, she found that a password she had used for an appointment page was stored on her phone so she could bypass a public page that incorrectly stated that there were no appointments available.
She started reaching out to friends, family, and her doorman to see if they knew any elderly people who needed help. She set up email addresses for those who didn’t have them. She printed out appointment forms and delivered them to people’s homes. She made about 30 appointments and personally escorted seven people to a vaccination center in Lower Manhattan, mostly in the middle of the night when appointments were easier to come by. She received tears of gratitude, cards, and flowers for her efforts.
“I don’t have a computer or WiFi,” said Mariley Carlota, a Brazilian widow who lives alone on the Upper East Side. Thanks to Mrs. Scamparini, she got her first shot on January 19th at 4:30 a.m. “She was like an angel to me.”
Mrs. Carlota was afraid to go to the doctor and go shopping. She is now planning her colonoscopy, endoscopy, and physical therapy for February. She cries at the thought that she will soon be able to return to her church and friends there.
“It’s like I’ve won a lottery,” she said.