How Californians are resorting to crowdsourcing to get their Covid-19 vaccine

On Wednesday, under increasing criticism for the state’s slow vaccine rollout, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced that all Californians 65 and older will be eligible for the shot.

But if you were a Californian who wanted to find more information about where to get that shot for yourself or your loved one, you would’ve been out of luck. While the state’s website has been updated to say that individuals 65 or older are eligible, there are no tools to find a nearby location where vaccines are available. The state’s official FAQ answers the question, “How can I get the Covid-19 vaccine?” with, “Most Californians will be vaccinated at community vaccination sites, doctor’s offices, clinics, or pharmacies” — no links, no instructions about how to find one near you.

So, fed-up Californians are taking matters into their own hands: they’re crowdsourcing it. In the last two days, an effort has sprung up to report on where shots are available to the elderly. Volunteers have set up a spreadsheet with a simple premise: One person can call each location every day and ask if vaccines are available, and then publish the information for everyone to see. (There’s a way to submit updates and corrections, too.) Once the team is confident in their two-day-old system, they’ll open up crowdsourcing and reporting, soliciting more help and more publicity so it can reach more Californians.

The crowdsourced list of where Covid-19 vaccines are available, and to whom, is a microcosm of both everything good and everything utterly broken about the United States’ coronavirus response.

Throughout the pandemic, national coordination has been lacking, causing public health tasks to fall to states and counties that vary dramatically in their preparedness to take them on. Coordination tasks that should be the business of government — from ensuring that there’s enough personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospital workers to reporting data on Covid-19 cases to letting people know which clinics offer vaccines — have fallen to hospitals themselves, or even to individuals.

Against that grim backdrop, people have stepped up, over and over, to get things done where our institutions have failed. In Washington State, university researchers studying the flu were among the first to detect the novel coronavirus in the country, while the CDC floundered. In Florida, a lone fired data scientist kept the state’s citizens updated about coronavirus case numbers. Journalists and researchers like Zeynep Tufekci told the public to wear masks and to worry about ventilation long before official organizations like the CDC and WHO recommended that. A group of citizens developed and published a risk points calculator to help people understand the risks of different daily activities.

And now in California, volunteers are trying to figure out which hospitals have enough vaccine supply to vaccinate elderly Americans. Should such a task fall to them? No. But since it has, I’m glad we have them.

How California got an unofficial vaccine availability dashboard overnight

Few US states have done an impressive job of rolling out the desperately needed Covid-19 vaccines in the month since the FDA approved them, but the most populous state, California, is among those having a particularly poor showing. The state with the best vaccination program, West Virginia, has used 78.6 percent of the doses shipped to it; California has used 27 percent, putting it 49th in the country. (Only Alabama, at 21 percent, is doing worse.) Seven percent of West Virginians have been vaccinated; only 2.5 percent of Californians have.

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On Wednesday, January 13, Newsom announced that people aged 65 and older could be vaccinated in California, as part of a push to improve the state’s dismal overall vaccination performance. (Newsom’s office has not responded to a request for comment.) Yet California is lacking the infrastructure for vaccine availability reporting that many other states have, though some counties have their own systems. For instance, West Virginia’s vaccination website lists every clinic conducting vaccinations each day, with an address and specific details about how to get a vaccine. Texas has a huge map of vaccination locations across the whole state, with the ones with availability highlighted.

The unofficial California dashboard came together as a result of a call to arms on Twitter from Patrick McKenzie, a well-known tech worker and writer currently at Stripe, a payments company that before the pandemic was based in San Francisco.

McKenzie went on to clarify that he and others would reimburse anyone who spent their own money out of pocket on setting up a system. Californians immediately chimed in with their stories of frustration at trying to get a vaccine:

Having every person in California who needs a vaccine call every doctor’s office until they find one that has availability is, obviously, a terrible way to distribute vaccines; doctors’ offices will be swamped with calls, while at-risk Americans may become dispirited and give up on getting the shot.

So more than 70 volunteers got to work. Ideally, every clinic would get only one call, every day, asking about availability that day; then the information would be made public so eligible residents could figure out where they could get the vaccine without having to make the calls themselves. A Google spreadsheet was linked, then migrated to an AirTable (a spreadsheet/database service with more flexibility than Google Sheets offers). A list of clinics and hospitals and contact information was compiled, and the team got to work calling them.

The reports started flowing in, each one a window into a chaotic vaccination system. “Only doing 75 and older right now, and asked me to call the county public health department at 408 792 5040 to schedule an appointment. That number redirects to 211 at the moment for Coronavirus related concerns and reached a full voicemail box otherwise,” the notes for one report for a hospital read.

Another reads, “says that Yolo county hasn’t had any direction [to start vaccinating elderly Californians], still on [Phase] 1A only.”

“We’re not offering that in LA County yet. I know Orange County’s offering it, but you have to be an Orange County resident,” another caller was told.

There was some good news too. As of January 14, Kaiser, the Oakland-based health care system, has availability for Kaiser patients 65 and older. Sutter Health, another California-based health care system, has availability for Sutter Health patients 75 and older. Ralph’s, the Southern California grocery store, has some slots.

And the site has already been used to get some people vaccinated:

But overall, Newsom’s Wednesday declaration that people 65 and older are eligible to be vaccinated hasn’t translated to policy changes at the vast majority of hospitals in California. Whatever has California so far behind West Virginia, it will take more than an expansion of eligibility — or a crowdsourced tool — to fix.

State and local governments have been put to an extraordinary test over the last year. Many California county health departments have been models of how to handle the pandemic, from their early action declaring an emergency in March to the low death counts all year.

But the vaccination rollout has made it clear that good local governance can’t solve everything. Without good statewide coordination and communication, and without funding, counties simply can’t help everyone eligible for a vaccine arrange to get one. Good county governments and individual/crowdsourced efforts can take over many key government functions, but without state and federal coordination, vaccine distribution will be more chaotic than it should be.

In light of that, perhaps the biggest benefit from a tracking project like this one is accountability. Calling up clinics across California systematically makes it clear that many counties and many hospitals aren’t vaccinating people aged 65 and older, whatever Newsom says. In some areas, clinics are still vaccinating their own health care workers, even though many other states finished vaccinating all willing front-line health care workers earlier this month and moved on to other priority groups.

It makes it clear that many of the state’s most vulnerable citizens are getting shuffled between websites and phone lines, often with no vaccine at the end of the journey — and it cuts through that confusion and mess to find the locations that are getting shots into elderly residents’ arms.

Eventually, maybe Californians will get answers about why the vaccine rollout was botched so badly. In the meantime, though, the answer that can’t wait — which clinics are open — is available online.

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