California's Clearest COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment Dashboard Is Run by Volunteers

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Nurse in PPE administers vaccine
Nurse Bethlehem Gurmu (L) receives a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from public health nurse Kathy Luu as staff members are vaccinated at the Ararat Nursing Facility in the Mission Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles on Jan. 7, 2021. Residents and staff at long term care facilities are on the CDC's highest priority list for vaccinations.  (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

This post was updated Feb. 5.

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If you've been looking for facts about getting your COVID-19 vaccine, you might have discovered that just finding clear information on how to schedule an appointment for an eligible person can be a difficult, time-consuming process.

In mid-January a site called VaccinateCA launched that not only lists vaccination sites around California, but details their current vaccine availability. The information is gathered manually by a team who compiled a list of medical centers, pharmacies and hospitals around the state, and now regularly contacts those locations to confirm their vaccine inventory — as well as what groups they're now accepting, and how to make an appointment yourself. There are also now versions of the site in Spanish and Simplified Chinese.  

But the thing about VaccinateCA? It's completely staffed by volunteers who make those calls, maintain the website and coordinate efforts across the state. And this crowdsourcing is filling a need in California that as yet, health officials don't seem to have addressed themselves: the need for residents to simply schedule a COVID-19 vaccine appointment near them.

Confusion and Low Availability

California has begun by prioritizing health care workers and long-term care residents (Phase 1A) for vaccination, and is now moving into its next phases. But even if you're eligible for the state's current vaccination phase, you'll need to find a vaccination site near you that has inventory enough to be able to serve you.

With Gov. Gavin Newsom's Jan. 13 announcement that people 65 and older were now eligible to receive the vaccine – and were being prioritized despite their (still) official place in line in Phase 1B — a huge number of Californians and their families breathed a sigh of relief. Yet many of those seniors are finding that despite now being vaccine-eligible on paper, the limited supply of doses in many counties means that officials are still vaccinating those health care workers from Phase 1A.

Even if your county does have availability, just making the appointment for an eligible person to get their vaccine can be far more difficult than you might think. As this Twitter thread from surgeon and advocate Dr. Arghavan Salles details, even trying to find the information itself can be a frustrating, circular process, littered with informational dead ends online.

And when finding this crucial information is so complex, it heightens the difficulty for those with less time and resources, those without consistent access to the internet, and for residents who speak languages other than English or who don't have experience navigating the U.S. medical system.

The state has launched MyTurn, a tool which allows Californians to input their details to see instantly if they're currently eligible for the vaccine — and to sign up for notifications about eligibility and future appointment scheduling.

The My Turn site now says that if you're near San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego, "you may be able to schedule your appointment today" using the tool, and that they're "adding appointments to My Turn daily, and expanding statewide." Check if you're currently able to make an appointment through My Turn here.

How VaccinateCA Works

Newsom's Jan. 13 announcement that Californians age 65 and older were now eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine prompted tech worker Patrick McKenzie to issue a simple call on Twitter:

Manish Goregaokar, an engineer with Google based in Berkeley, saw McKenzie's tweet and began to mull on what he might be able to offer. When a personal friend reached out and added him to the Discord server that the first volunteers were using to communicate, Goregaokar officially got on board and began by helping the team find and collate phone numbers for every one of the medical centers and pharmacies on their list: "500 or so phone numbers," he said.

The VaccinateCA team now numbers more than 250 volunteers around California. They include many engineers by day, such as himself, said Goregaokar, who have been instrumental in building and maintaining the system on which the dashboard runs, as well as folks providing coordinating services like media liaison.

But the project also turns on the work of old-fashioned phone bankers making those regular calls to vaccination locations. The information that volunteers get from their calls feeds the public-facing dashboard and also the VaccinateCA map. Users can see details such as if a provider is only accepting current patients or whether prior registration through the county is required for vaccination.

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During the COVID-19 pandemic, we've seen how misinformation — intentional or inadvertent — can rush to fill a void created by an absence of reliable information from official sources. Goregaokar said he and the VaccinateCA team are accordingly aware of the importance of keeping the dashboard's information up to date and accurate, and urged users to submit any additions or corrections through the site, such as adding a missing vaccination location, correcting contact information or reporting unavailable vaccines.

To prevent their information from resulting in vaccine seekers jamming up a clinic's phone lines, Goregaokar said the VaccinateCA dashboard only lists phone numbers when that's the location's stated preference for scheduling vaccination appointments. Generally, when it comes to errors, Goregaokar said, "It's more often just that we're listing a place as a 'yes,' but the 'yes' conditions are more nuanced than we thought."

VaccinateCA's quest has also had the unintended consequence of alerting several pharmacies to the fact that they're not in their county's system as eligible vaccine providers — even though they should be.

Goregaokar said after one Rite Aid pharmacy in San Bernardino County was called by a VaccinateCA volunteer, pharmacy staff realized they weren't actually listed as a provider by the county — and were accordingly not receiving appointment requests for the vaccines they had. Pharmacy staff then worked with the county to correct the situation, prompting VaccinateCA's volunteers to then make more calls to other Rite Aid pharmacies in that region to advise them to do the same.

As Goregaokar wrote on Twitter, "This switch between 'we're directly helping people, indirectly helping the system' to 'we're also directly helping the system' was fascinating to watch unfold, and really rewarding."

What's Next for California Vaccinations?

Other states have official vaccine availability dashboards allowing residents to see providers near them offering appointments — like this map from Texas's Division of Emergency Management.

Yet weeks into the vaccine rollout, VaccinateCA's unofficial system remains the closest thing California has to a centralized dashboard. The California Department of Public Health said they "have no comment on the VaccinateCA website."

VaccinateCA spokesperson Zoelle Egner said via email that the project coordinators are "actively reaching out to — and hearing from! — folks in both local and state government," and that they "encourage anyone in local and state government to reach out so we can work together towards our mutual goal" of accelerating vaccination rates in California.

CDPH has also launched the  MyTurn notification system to let people know if and when they are eligible to schedule a vaccination appointment. CDPH said a second phase of that system "will help counties, cities and others run mass-vaccination events," and that this will "include a way for eligible members of the public to schedule their vaccination appointments at those events." Community vaccination events are, CDPH said, "only one way for eligible Californians to receive their vaccines. When available, the public can also go to their doctor or pharmacy to receive the vaccine."

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It's still early days for the VaccinateCA site — after all, Patrick McKenzie's exploratory tweet was sent only a  few weeks ago. But Goregaokar said the team is focusing on how to keep their efforts sustainable and growing.  VaccinateCA's spokesperson Egner says that the team has now made over 6,000 calls to more than 3,400 vaccination locations throughout California.

The site has been redesigned for speed and ease of use, and now also has versions in Spanish and Simplified Chinese.  

"The faster we get vaccines out, the faster we save lives," said Goregaokar. "Even getting vaccines out a few days early is pretty big at scale. So I just want us to help with this."

"If this information is not out there, it should be," he said. "And it should be as easy as possible for people who are eligible for the vaccine to get the vaccine."

What Else Do You Want to Know About COVID-19 Vaccines?

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