The Biden administration launched a website and text line on Friday to help people find COVID-19 vaccines near where they live. A national 1-800 hotline in dozens of languages will also soon be announced, according to a senior official from the Department of Health and Human Services.
Vaccines.gov previously offered general guidance about vaccines, such as explainers on how they work and why they're important. Now, it features a tool that allows people to input their zip code and see which pharmacies and other providers have COVID-19 vaccine doses in stock.
The online tool is a new and improved version of VaccineFinder, a website from Boston Children's Hospital, Castlight, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That site, which launched with information about COVID-19 vaccines in late February, looked very similar.
Vaccines.gov's improvements include a Spanish language version of the site — Vacunas.gov — new accessibility features for people with visual impairments, and about three times more vaccine providers, according to John Brownstein, the founder of VaccineFinder and chief information officer at Boston Children's Hospital.
"By having comprehensive coverage, it's just going to make it easier and easier for people to use the site, navigate getting a vaccine and ultimately getting that shot," he says. When VaccineFinder launched in February, only five states showed all available vaccine providers. Now, Brownstein says, it's the "vast majority of states," and they're working with those last few states to include them as well.
Also launched Friday were two text lines. If you text your zipcode to GETVAX (for English) or VACUNA (for Spanish) you will get a message back with three possible vaccination sites, with phone numbers to call for an appointment.
The plan is to do outreach about these new tools in different hard-to-reach populations, a senior HHS official wrote in a statement to NPR. "For example, we'll advertise the 1-800 number in rural areas that may have less access to broadband, and target digital ads toward younger people with information on the text message tool."
At the outset of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign, a patchwork approach to registering people for vaccine appointments and constantly changing eligibility rules made for a maddening few months. People described staying up until midnight to snatch up newly released appointments, or obsessively refreshing appointment pages. Vaccine hunting groups sprang up to try to connect those who had trouble navigating the difficult systems with appointments.
Now, the country is in a different phase. Eligibility is open across the country to everyone over age 16. Many public health vaccination sites are switching from doling out coveted invitations to those who preregistered to allowing walk-ins. Demand seems to have waned in many places, and the pace of vaccination has slowed from a high of 4.6 million in one 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 effort to offer more assertive federal leadership over the COVID-19 public health response. In particular, it fulfills a promise President Biden made 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 the shot, including a new website that will help you first find the place to get vaccinated and the one nearest you."
Brownstein says they're hoping to keep expanding the site to include new features, such as allowing people to book appointments directly from Vaccines.gov. "We're trying to cut down the numbers of steps that people have to take to get appointments," he says. Eventually, he says, they hope to have "direct integration with our partners to make it as easy as possible for consumers."
Giving people a way to find and book appointments at a one-stop shop would be a game changer, says Melissa McPheeters, who directs the Center for Improving the Public's Health through Informatics at Vanderbilt University.
The current options for landing an appointment have been difficult for people, she says. "You can go online, you can see that an appointment exists somewhere, but you still have to go to the Kroger website or the Wal-Mart website or the CVS website."
She wishes these new federal tools made it easy to see where the walk-in clinics near you were, so all you had to do was put in your zip code and get in your car. And, she notes, "getting people to want to even get to the website is critical." Many millions of Americans say they're still not sure they're going to vaccinated — or have decided against it, according to recent polling by KFF.
The new accessibility features are encouraging, says Zuhair Mahmoud, an accessibility professional based in Washington, D.C. 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 the accessibility issues when it comes to booking an appointment remain. "The site is really only a gateway to find vaccines — to check availability and schedule an appointment, the site takes you to the vaccine provider's site to do so, and there is no telling what that is like," he notes.
The Spanish version of the website — along with the hotline and text line — may be helpful for reaching some of the populations that have yet to get vaccinated. Samantha Artiga, director of Racial Equity and Health Policy Program at the Kaiser Family Foundation, says that data shows a persistent gap in vaccination rates between white people and Black and Hispanic people.
"From the data themselves, we can't understand exactly the factors that are driving that gap," she says. "It could reflect barriers related to where vaccination clinics are located, people's different transportation options, differing levels of trust or comfort with different types of sites that are offering vaccinations."
Having good quality translations could help address language barriers for non-English speakers, says Suyanna Linhales Barker, Chief of Programs and Community Services at La Clinica del Pueblo, which is providing vaccinations and outreach to the Latino community in Washington, D.C.
But it can't just be the site itself that's translated, she says. Outreach materials also need to be translated, as well as registration forms on pharmacy and public health websites, and even the text or email communication about when and where to go once your appointment is scheduled.
She says a national website and hotlines might help streamline things, but local in-person efforts need to happen at the same time. On Thursday, she and some colleagues spent several hours on the sidewalk outside a community center in Washington D.C., talking with passersby about the COVID-19 vaccine and signing people up on the spot to get a shot.
And they have more in-person outreach planned. "In the neighborhoods around the clinic, we are going to each beauty salon, each little grocery store, and we're putting information there and asking people to call us if they have questions," she said.
She says she expects they will be doing this work to get the word out and answer questions through the end of the year.