En español | Even as vaccine restrictions loosen and supplies ramp up around the country, appointments for a vaccination remain difficult to get, and many older Americans still need help to schedule one. A good place to start is with a vaccine-locating website such as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) VaccineFinder.org.
State and county government websites, national and local pharmacy websites, and aggregating websites such as VaccineFinder are also designed to help those who want the shot find available vaccines in their area.
The CDC's VaccineFinder, run by Boston Children's Hospital, has provided access to flu and other routine vaccinations since 2009. In February, VaccineFinder expanded its services to include available COVID-19 vaccine appointments and suspended direction to other vaccines.
When it expanded in February, VaccineFinder made access available to 20,000 providers across the U.S. offering COVID-19 vaccines. In late March, VaccineFinder increased its access to more than 30,000 providers, says Liz Su, a product manager.
"Covering every state, national pharmacies are available on our website, such as CVS, Walgreens, Kroger. But also local providers such as mom-and-pop shops, regional chains and small pharmacies,” says Su. “They are all able to enroll onto VaccineFinder in order to list their location as open to providing vaccines to the public."
VaccineFinder points people to the right places — redirecting them to a provider's website to look for appointment times — though it doesn't schedule the appointments. With more than half of the states now dropping the age of vaccine eligibility to as young as 16, the demand for appointments is likely to increase dramatically, and thus the demand for vaccine-finding websites.
Volunteers help connect people with shots
In response to increased demand and scheduling frustrations, groups of volunteers across the U.S. are dedicating their time to helping people set up appointments.
One in Illinois, Chicago Vaccine Angels (CVA), includes about 50 volunteers who help people schedule appointments in the city and across the state. As of April 1, the group had booked a total of 3,200 appointments for people, says Brianna Wolin, a volunteer administrator with CVA.
"Our primary concern has been and remains with people in tiers 1A and 1B,” says Wolin. “That is frontline health care workers, people who are 65 years plus, and essential workers in different industries that have kept our world turning."
As age restrictions for the vaccine are lowered, Wolin says, CVA has seen an increase in requests for booking appointments. Still, the demand isn't nearly as high as when the state allowed only individuals who are 65 years or older to get vaccinated.
"It seems like people are getting the hang of the broken system and leveraging the endless resources shared in our public Facebook page, Chicago Vaccine Hunters,” says Wolin.
She says the volunteers at CVA help people as much as they need with the process, whether that means simply showing them which pharmacy has vaccine and letting them book their own appointment or taking them through the entire scheduling process.
"It's a little bit of a knowledge war and a little bit of an execution war. We are on the battleground of both of those,” Wolin says. “Now that we're considered a local, established group of volunteers, we get a lot of outreach from sites and locations [with available vaccines]."
Throughout her time volunteering, Wolin says, CVA has aggregated information so that it knows when and where certain vaccine appointments may become available and at what times. The volunteers use their local county websites as well as various pharmacy websites to schedule appointments for people, she says.
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Are vaccine-finding websites here to stay?
For people across the country experiencing scheduling challenges, Georges Benjamin, M.D., executive director of the American Public Health Association, says VaccineFinder is a reliable and reasonably effective resource for finding available vaccines.
"In terms of reliability of seeing enough places that have vaccines, it makes it worth your while to go use [VaccineFinder],” says Benjamin. “I tell people there are three places you can go. You can go to the VaccineFinder site, you can go to the specific retail pharmacy site, and third is your state or local health department."
Benjamin says the research is still inconclusive about how often people may need to continue getting the vaccine. Therefore, he says, the public health community is not sure if vaccine-finding websites are here to stay, or when vaccines will become widely available through doctors’ offices and local clinics.
"We hope in the next three or four months, they will be readily available, but the supply of the vaccine is still going to be pretty tight,” Benjamin says. “Not every physician is necessarily going to have it, because this kind of thing usually takes a year or two before it becomes a routine."