Vaccine Hunters: how Americans are building communities and startups to fight COVID | TELNEWS

Vaccine Hunters: how Americans are building communities and startups to fight COVID

The United States has been hit harder by the coronavirus than other countries: the disease has killed more than 500,000 people in a year. In December last year, the country began mass vaccination. But there were too many people who wanted to be vaccinated, and the vaccine suppliers are not keeping up with the demand. To better distribute available vaccines, Americans are joining online communities and creating IT projects.

In December 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccines. By March 10, the government had distributed about 127.9 million doses of vaccines to all states. The start of mass vaccination has revealed several serious problems in American health care.

The federal government has called on states to vaccinate health care workers and nursing home residents first. Who gets the vaccine after them is up to the states to decide. In some cases, the state vaccination system works more effectively than in others. For example, according to The New York Times on March 10, in New Mexico and Connecticut at least one dose of the vaccine received 26% and 25% of the population, respectively, and in Minnesota — only 10%.

After the start of vaccination, people began to enroll in mass vaccination online. But there is no centralized system for recording in the US. At the same time, the vaccine is supplied by state and local health departments, whose budgets, according to the Washington Post, have been declining for many years.

As a result, Americans have to sign up for vaccinations through overloaded government hotlines and hastily made sites for online registration, writes The New York Times. Health officials even asked for help from the Eventbrite platform, through which organizers of small events usually sell tickets.

Many Americans sign up for vaccinations several times and do not cancel the additional record after vaccination, which is why hospitals regularly leave extra doses of the vaccine. The preparations must be stored at very low temperatures, and they can be used for as little as six hours after defrosting. Doctors are left with two options: either quickly find people who need the vaccine, or just throw it away.

It happens that vaccines are unfairly distributed by medical institutions: instead of those who are at risk, they are received by relatives and friends of health workers. According to the Insider, in late December, Dr. Hassan Gokal, working at a vaccination site in Texas, stole nine doses of the vaccine to vaccinate his loved ones. The doctor was fired and a criminal case was opened.

Another egregious case occurred in Florida in January: after the state authorities began vaccinating citizens over the age of 65, hundreds of elderly people had to spend the night in a live queue at the vaccination site. Despite this, many returned home with nothing. At the same time, according to The Washington Post, executives at the Florida long-term care facility MorseLife offered board members and sponsors vaccines designed for patients and employees. It is not known how many people received such an offer.

Startup in honor of my grandfather

Cyrus Massumi, the founder of the online doctor appointment platform ZocDoc, estimates that 20-30% of the residual doses of the vaccine go to friends of health workers. To distribute them more fairly, Massumi created the startup Dr. B, a platform where US residents can sign up for vaccination. To do this, it is enough to register on the site, specify your phone number and leave information that gives you the right to claim a priority place in the queue, if there are any. Vaccine suppliers provide the startup with information about the available drug residues. When there are "extra" doses of the drug, the service sends users SMS alerts: the first to receive them are people from at-risk groups.

According to Dr. B, more than 1 million people have already joined the queue on the platform. The startup is not paid by either users or vaccine providers. Massumi does not disclose the business model of Dr. B, writes The New York Times. According to the founder, while he finances the project out of his own pocket and does not expect any income. He named the startup after his grandfather, who worked as a doctor during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918-1920 — according to Cyrus, his grandfather was then nicknamed "Dr. Bubba".

Cyrus Massumi isn't the only one trying to solve the vaccine problem in the US. Doug Ward from Colorado wanted to vaccinate his elderly mother, who, due to her age and the presence of chronic diseases, was at risk, but could not find a vaccine for her. Looking for a solution, Ward found himself on the NOLA Vaccine hunters community Facebook page. It was created by the residents of New Orleans, who set out to provide access to the remnants of the vaccine for everyone who is ready to come to a medical facility where they are available.

Ward created a similar community for Colorado residents and the VaccineHunterorg website. The site contains links to groups of "vaccine hunters" from different states. Among them, for example, is the NoVA Vaccine Hunters community — its members inform each other about vaccination points and the order of receipt of the vaccine in Northern Virginia. The group consists of 7,900 people. On Facebook, there are similar groups for residents of Massachusetts, Tennessee, Texas and other states.

Ward raises funds to pay for the domain and hosting of his site through the Open Collective platform. By March 11, he had raised $174 — half of the required amount.

Another solution in early February was proposed by 31-year-old programmer from New York, Huge Ma, who, like Doug Ward, faced difficulties when trying to enroll his mother for vaccination. He created the TurboVax website, which collects online data on available doses at vaccination sites in New York State, and then sends the information to Twitter in real time. According to Ma, he spent less than $50 to develop the site.

14-year-old schoolboy from Chicago, Benjamin Kagan, drew attention to the shortcomings of the state system when he helped sign up for vaccination for his grandparents, writes ABC News. The teenager began volunteering in his spare time at school and created a Google form where Chicago residents can submit a request for Kagan or another volunteer to help them find an empty place in the queue for the vaccine. He also founded the Chicago Vaccine Angels community, and in a few weeks, more than 50 volunteers joined him.

New Yorkers are also looking for vaccines on the NYC Vaccine List, which was created by volunteers. The system checks official government portals, websites of medical institutions and pharmacies. When there is a free place to write somewhere, NYC Vaccine List offers it to the user. The creators of the site were inspired by the VaccinateCA platform of volunteers from California, who manually call hospitals and pharmacies every day, and then publish up-to-date information about the availability of the vaccine and how to get it.

Another site — -created by 28-year-old developer from Massachusetts, Olivia Adams, after her mother-in-law told her that she had difficulty understanding how to sign up for vaccination and where to go to get vaccinated. The site accumulates data on available vaccine doses from other sites. Olivia told CNN that she made the website during her maternity leave. According to her, the development took her three weeks and only about 40 hours of working time.

Dr. B, VaccineHunterorg, and other sites and communities help get the vaccine by working online. Meanwhile, according to Insider, about 38 million Americans do not know how to use the Internet, and 25 million do not have access to the network at all.

The Sayre Mobile Care Unit project, which was created by University of Pennsylvania graduates Jay Shah and Santosh Nori, partly solves the problem of vaccination for those who do not have Internet access. Back in October 2019, they opened a mobile clinic in a van to help the homeless of Philadelphia. When vaccination started in the United States, they started using a van for it. By February 20, 250 people who do not have access to the Internet due to their social status were vaccinated in it. "One of the consequences of Covid-19 is the widening disparity between people who have access to technology and those who don't," says Jay Shah.


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