Selena Simmons-Duffin / NPR
The Biden administration launched a website and text line on Friday to help people find COVID-19 vaccines near their homes. A national 1-800 phone line in dozens of languages will also be announced soon, according to a senior official with the Department of Health and Human Services.
Vaccines.gov has offered general advice on vaccines, such as how they work and why they are important. Now it offers a tool that allows people to enter their zip code and see which pharmacies and other vendors have doses of the COVID-19 vaccine in stock.
The online tool is a new and improved version of VaccineFinder, a website for Boston Children’s Hospital, Castlight, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This site, which launched with information about COVID-19 vaccines in late February, looked very similar.
Vaccines.gov improvements include a Spanish version of the site – Vacunas.gov – new accessibility features for people with visual impairments and around three times as many vaccine providers, according to John brownstein, founder of VaccineFinder and chief information officer at Boston Children’s Hospital.
“Having full coverage will just make it easier and easier for people to use the site, navigate to get a vaccine, and ultimately get the vaccine,” he says. When VaccineFinder launched in February, only five states listed all available vaccine providers. Now, says Brownstein, that’s the “vast majority of states,” and they’re working with those latter states to include them as well.
Also on Friday, two lines of text were launched. If you send your postal code to GETVAX (for English) or VACUNA (for Spanish), you will receive a message with three possible vaccination sites, with phone numbers to call for an appointment.
The plan is to raise awareness about these new tools in different hard-to-reach populations, a senior HHS official wrote in a statement to NPR. “For example, we will advertise the 1-800 number in rural areas that may have less broadband access, and target digital ads to younger people with information on the text messaging tool.”
At the start of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, a patchwork approach to registering people for vaccination appointments and ever-changing eligibility rules lasted for a maddening few months. People described staying up until midnight to make newly released appointments or obsessively refreshing appointment pages. Vaccine hunt groups sprang up to try to connect those who struggled to navigate difficult systems with dates.
Now the country is in a different phase. Eligibility is open across the country to anyone over the age of 16. Many public health vaccination sites are moving from distributing coveted invitations to those who have pre-registered to allowing walk-in visits. Demand appears to have declined in many places and the pace of vaccination has jumped from a peak of 4.6 million in a day a few weeks ago to an average of 2.7 million at the end of April.
Vaccine.gov is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to provide more assertive federal leadership on the COVID-19 public health response. In particular, he is keeping a promise made by President Biden in remarks on March 11, when he said his administration would launch new tools “to make it easier for you to find the vaccine and where to get vaccinated, including a new website that will help you find where to get vaccinated first and the one closest to you “.
Brownstein says they hope to continue expanding the site to include new features, such as allowing people to book appointments directly from Vaccines.gov. “We’re trying to reduce the number of steps people have to go through to get appointments,” he says. Ultimately, he says, they hope to have “direct integration with our partners to make it as easy as possible for consumers.”
Giving people a one-stop-shop way to find and book appointments would be a game-changer, says Melissa McPheeters, who heads the Center for Improving Public Health Through Informatics at Vanderbilt University.
The current options for getting a date have been difficult for people, she says. “You can go online, you can see an appointment exists somewhere, but you still have to go to the Kroger website or the Wal-Mart website or the CVS website.”
She wants these new federal tools to make it easy to see where walk-in clinics were located near you, so all you had to do was enter your zip code and get in your car. And, she notes, “getting people to even want to access the website is essential.” Millions of Americans say they’re still not sure whether to get the vaccine – or have decided not to, according to recent poll by KFF.
The new accessibility features are encouraging, says Zuhair Mahmoud, an accessibility professional based in Washington, DC. He is blind and uses a screen reader to use the web. The new Vaccines.gov site is usable with a screen reader, he says, but adds that accessibility issues when booking appointments remain. “The site is really just a gateway to finding vaccines – to check availability and schedule an appointment, the site takes you to the vaccine supplier’s site to do it, and it’s impossible to tell. what it looks like, ”he notes.
The Spanish version of the website, as well as the hotline and text line, can be useful in reaching some of the populations that have not yet been vaccinated. Samantha artiga, director of the racial equity and health policy program at the Kaiser Family Foundation, says data shows a persistent gap in vaccination rates between whites and blacks and Hispanics.
“From the data itself, we can’t exactly understand the factors behind this discrepancy,” she says. “This could reflect barriers related to the location of vaccination clinics, different options for transporting people, different levels of confidence or comfort with different types of sites that offer vaccinations.”
Having good quality translations could help overcome language barriers for non-English speakers, says Suyanna Linhales Barker, head of programs and community services at The Clinica del Pueblo, which provides immunizations and outreach to the Latin American community in Washington, DC
But it can’t just be the site itself that’s translated, she says. Awareness materials also need to be translated, along with registration forms on pharmacies and public health websites, and even text or email communication as to when and where to go once your appointment is set. .
She says a national website and hotlines could help streamline things, but local in-person efforts need to happen at the same time. On Thursday, she and a few colleagues spent several hours on the sidewalk outside a Washington DC community center, talking with passers-by about the COVID-19 vaccine and recruiting people there to get the vaccine.
And they have planned more outreach in person. “In the neighborhoods around the clinic, we go to every beauty salon, every little grocery store, and we put information there and ask people to call us if they have any questions,” she said.
She says she expects them to do this job to spread the word and answer questions until the end of the year.