The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services have rolled out a service allowing people to find COVID-19 vaccines available nearby via text message.
The text-line will launch alongside Vaccines.gov – a revamped version of VaccineFinder.org that similarly allows users to search for available vaccine doses by ZIP code – and a to-be-released 1-800 number to help those who prefer to get information via phone.
“As we work to increase access to the COVID-19 vaccines, these tools will eliminate burdens and help make it easier to find vaccination sites,” said Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in a statement provided to Healthcare IT News.
Although the site officially went live on May 1, some users – including members of the Healthcare IT News team – reported downtime on Monday as more individuals tried to use the tool.
WHY IT MATTERS
According to the agencies, anyone can now text their ZIP code to GETVAX (438829) in English, or VACUNA (822862) in Spanish, to get the contact information of three locations near them with available vaccines. The tool is aimed at key populations, such as young people or those with limited broadband connectivity who might prefer SMS-based messaging.
HHS representatives did not respond to questions about which vendor was hosting the text-based service.
Meanwhile, the agencies also announced the conversion of VaccineFinder.org – a project first launched by Boston Children’s Hospital, Castlight and the CDC – to a new site, Vaccines.gov.
The agencies say that they have worked with jurisdiction and pharmacy partners to increase data reporting to include information for all states.
Although spokespeople were not specific as to which vendor was responsible for which component of the site, they said President Joe Biden’s administration had worked to forge partnerships between VaccineFinder.org and Google, Apple and Microsoft.
According to the CDC website, COVID-19 vaccination providers are required to report inventory each day, although sharing their location to the public is optional.
The tool notes that inventories are subject to change. Indeed, as of Monday, some Chicago-area locations that were displaying availability on the Vaccines.gov website did not have same-day appointments available on the provider website – likely a result of the delay between real-time vaccinations and reporting to the CDC, or between reporting to the CDC and website updates.
Agency spokespeople cited the tools as a bridge to access for those who have been unable to obtain a vaccine so far. For instance, in Alabama – currently ranked last in the country for vaccination rates – various ZIP codes returned several providers within 50 miles.
The same was true in Montana, even with ZIP codes with populations of fewer than 1,000 people.
The website is currently available in English and in Spanish, and spokespeople said that the agencies had worked to build it with high accessibility standards.
The National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline, a 1-800 number that has not yet been announced, will be available as well for people who prefer to get information via phone. Assistance will be provided in English, Spanish and more than 150 other languages. It also includes a teletype line to support access for hearing-impaired callers.
Of course, the tools do not include the actual booking process, so callers may still encounter barriers when they try to make appointments. Still, administration officials say their new tools are intended to complement those already available nationwide.
THE LARGER TREND
“At the time when every adult is eligible in May, we will launch, with our partners, new tools to make it easier for you to find the vaccine and where to get the shot, including a new website that will help you find a place to get vaccinated and the one nearest you,” he said.
The announcement prompted speculation from those in the health IT community, some of whom remembered the not-so-triumphant initial launch of the Healthcare.gov insurance exchange portal in 2013.
“We know that when the government tries to create IT systems, they’ve been plagued with bugs,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, former health advisor to President Barack Obama, who also served on President Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board, this past month.
ON THE RECORD
“We want to make it as easy as possible for people to get vaccinated, once they make the decision to do so,” said Murthy.
“By making it easier to find a vaccine, we will help people take a big step towards protecting themselves against COVID-19 and returning to their lives,” Murthy added.