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California technologists create website to track vaccinations

The creation of VaccinateCA underscores the growing frustration in California with the state’s handling of the pandemic and vaccine distribution.
Health officials use wireless devices to register people with vaccine appointments at a mass COVID-19 vaccination site outside The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., on Jan. 19, 2021.Damian Dovarganes / AP

For weeks, Patrick McKenzie had been reading and hearing about the frustrations of people in California trying to make appointments to get coronavirus vaccination for themselves or loved ones.

“The frustration and the fear involved in calling 20 hospitals and hearing no, no, no, no, no. I thought, there has to be a better way to do this,” McKenzie, a software developer at the online payment processing company Stripe, said.

So on the evening of Jan. 13, he tweeted a call to fellow techies to solve the problem. Less than four hours later, he and a team of 70 other technologists wrapped up with a six bullet-point plan.

By noon the next day, the team had launched, a website meant to be a one-stop destination for people looking for information on where and when vaccinations are available across the state. Users can search by region or county, or within a set radius of their ZIP code to find active vaccine distribution sites, eligibility and how to make an appointment.

Prior to the website, there was no such resource available. While some California counties have put up websites to provide information, others have not. Many provide some level of information but only a few say what pharmacies are distributing the vaccine in addition to vaccine distribution hubs. On California’s pandemic information website, there is a section that answers the question: “How can I get the COVID-19 vaccination?” With no links or further information, the website informs visitors that “most Californians will be vaccinated at: community vaccination sites, doctor’s offices, clinics, or pharmacies.”

The creation of VaccinateCA underscores the growing frustration in California with the state’s handling of the pandemic and vaccine distribution, particularly among people in the sizable tech industry. They are used to moving quickly and staying agile, and many say they have been eager to help out where they could.

“We saw a problem we know we could help with,” said Zoelle Egner, a marketing manager at a tech company and one of the organizers of VaccinateCA. “Here’s our chance to do something good and push something forward as a part of the community.”

California ranks second to last at vaccine distribution efficiency in the U.S., with only 37 percent of the 4.4 million doses given to the state having been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By comparison, North Dakota, West Virginia and Washington, D.C., have used more than 70 percent of their allotted doses. Each of those three states have websites with information directing eligible patients to register for a vaccine appointment.

Other states have robust resources for vaccine distribution information.

In West Virginia, the state publishes a list of community vaccination clinics each day with locations, times and contact numbers. Texas has an interactive map with vaccination locations marked. It even shows if there are vaccines still available at each one.

Anthony Wright, a member of the state’s Community Vaccine Advisory Committee, which works with the state to guide policy, said that the state has to do better but that the core of the problem with centralized communication is that the distribution itself is so decentralized.

“This is not a California implementation of vaccine distribution," Wright said. "It's not even a 58-county distribution. This is literally hundreds of implementations of not just counties, but a variety of providers." Those providers range from vaccine distribution hubs and hospitals to local pharmacies and even fire departments.

“It’s not an issue of the state having this information and not disclosing it,” Wright said. “I don’t think that they have it, that they haven’t collected it.”

The VaccinateCA database is kept entirely by volunteers and was born out of frustration that the government wasn’t doing a good job of fixing what seemed to be a manageable problem, McKenzie said. His idea for how to make it work came from his teenage years.

“I paid for my college education by working in a call center taking orders for office supplies. And it turns out that in 2021, understanding how a call center operates became suddenly useful to me,” he said.

The prospect of an individual calling every vaccine location in the state every day to build this database seemed impossible to McKenzie. But he knew that if he designed a solution like a call center, he could get a big group of people to divvy up the work and make the database a reality.

“We are working with, basically, our friends or colleagues or family members. I invite someone I trust, they invite someone that they trust, etc., etc., so we have a tight group of volunteers, where there's a high mutual trust,” McKenzie said.

The project is currently made up of 10 core people working with about 250 volunteers who update the list daily. The teams stay in constant contact, keeping a channel on the internet chat service Discord open to speed up the dissemination of information.

“It is quite amusing to me that the discord which is usually used for killing dragons is now used for killing the coronavirus,” McKenzie said.

Each morning the volunteers call a list of hospitals, pharmacies and even fire departments. Using an app they quickly built to keep information consistent, they read through a script and add relevant information into a collaborative spreadsheet.

The VaccinateCA group says that all they want to do is make sure that as many doses get into as many arms as quickly as possible. And while there is talk of combining forces with state government officials, there’s still no plan to make that happen.

“If there was a system to work with tomorrow, we would hand it over,” said Egner, one of the organizers with VaccinateCA. “Right now we are just focusing on the problem ahead of us, and we will keep doing it until the problem is resolved.”

The California Department of Public Health said it had no comment on the VaccinateCA website or prospects of working together. While it didn't say if there was any plan for a similar state resource, the department did highlight that the state was getting ready to launch a program for people to be notified once they’re eligible for the vaccine.

The VaccinateCA team, through its daily inquiries, has also gathered enough data for volunteers to notice trends and problems with distribution. While making a round of calls one recent morning, a volunteer discovered that a Rite Aid that said it had the vaccine wasn’t listed on the county’s website. Several calls later, it turned out that a single text file with all the Rite Aids in the county had not been uploaded to the system. The issue was resolved and the locations populated into the database.

The calls have also illustrated a different problem. They found that small pharmacies aren’t receiving enough information from the state. In one case, a VaccinateCA volunteer encouraged a pharmacist to do a quick Google search, leading them to update their policies and have their info added to the database.

“They learn their news about the coronavirus vaccine the way they learned their news about most things, in the newspaper," McKenzie said. "If they haven't read the newspaper yet, they might not be aware that they are legally entitled to distribute the doses that they have already been sent."

For McKenzie, whose last leadership position was running a group in the computer game "World of Warcraft," the past week has been a whirlwind unlike any involving a startup that he has ever seen. Already, tech savvy people in other states have been inspired by the VaccinateCA team to create their own versions, like one in Michigan.

McKenzie’s website has a place for users to give feedback, and he said it started seeing success stories within days of launching, mostly from people finding vaccines for elderly parents. He says the site has gotten hundreds of thank you messages, like one saying, “this site helped save an 87 year old man.”

“When I read that, I thought it was all worth doing for that one dose," he said. "And now, how do we get the next 100 doses, the next 1,000 doses, the next 100,000 doses?”