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The Problem With Vaccine Websites


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If you’re having problems registering for a coronavirus vaccine appointment, you are not alone.

There have been horror stories in places including Florida, Texas and New York of overwhelmed government hotlines or bungled online scheduling systems for vaccinations. Some health officials resorted to Eventbrite, a website typically used for organizing low-stakes events like bar crawls, to schedule residents’ shots.

It’s enraging that after the scientific marvel of inventing Covid-19 vaccines, now there are bureaucratic and technical bottlenecks that have slowed the vaccine rollout. (Feel free to scream out loud with me.) But don’t be angry about botched government technology or direct your fury only at your local officials. Be mad about the broad systemic failure.

As we have seen with other frailties of government programs during the pandemic, botched technology is often a symptom of misguided policy choices, chronic underfunding of public health and the generally dysfunctional and decentralized coronavirus response in the United States.

When I read several tales last week about botched vaccine scheduling in some parts of Florida, I contacted the U.S. Digital Response, an organization I’ve written about before that pairs tech-savvy volunteers with state and local governments needing tech assistance.

Until I spoke with them, I didn’t grasp the complexity of what public health authorities are doing to get people vaccinated. The hard part is not just the scheduling hotlines or websites that you and I see; it’s everything that the public doesn’t see.

Officials at the organization outlined eight or more discrete requirements for local governments to manage their vaccination programs. The steps include keeping tabs on the incoming and outgoing inventory of shots, making sure people meet the eligibility requirements for vaccines, scheduling appointments (twice!) and reminding people of them, collecting patient information, keeping records to report to state and federal health authorities, and potentially billing health insurance programs.

Government officials must also keep the public informed about where and when to get vaccines, make sure health care information is secure and private, and ensure services are accessible for people who don’t have computers or speak languages other than English. Sounds super fun and easy, right?!

I’m not trying to deflect blame from America’s federal, state and local government authorities for not getting shots to people faster. They could be making smarter decisions even with all the constraints they’re facing. But I am encouraging us to understand what is involved.

Imagine Amazon trying to manage all its orders and packages, except with confusing and constantly shifting orders from the bosses and after years of underinvestment in people and technology.

Plus, no one has ever run a vaccine campaign on this scale and at this speed.

Is it any wonder, then, that local newspaper reporters were trying to help Floridians grapple with a confusing online form, or that some counties tried using Eventbrite when hotlines failed? “I respect that they’re trying to move as quickly as possible,” said Diana Wang, product manager of U.S.D.R.’s health program.

She added that it might not have been the right decision to use Eventbrite because a private company doesn’t necessarily assure people’s privacy, and some fraudsters posed as local health departments online.

The frustrating thing is that all the bungled vaccination efforts fit a pattern. When government programs that have been unattended, underfunded and bogged down by red tape suddenly have to meet a huge demand in a crisis, they can’t cope and people suffer.

Covid-19 Vaccines ›

Answers to Your Vaccine Questions

While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.

Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.

Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.

The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.

No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Israel has started to vaccinate a relatively large percentage of its population, although the country is facing a shortage of doses and vaccines aren’t reaching some groups of people.

When you start to pull your hair out because you can’t register for a vaccine on a local website, remember that it’s not (only) the fault of a bad tech company or misguided choices by government leaders today. It’s a systematic failure years in the making.


Tip of the Week

Brian X. Chen, the personal technology columnist for The New York Times, talks us through options for taking some breaks if we’re prone to wallowing in distressing world events.

Some of the news this month has been so stressful that many of us have needed reminders to unclench our jaws and stop staring at our screens.

In my recent column about creating a digital detox plan, I outlined methods like setting no-phone zones in the home — keep devices out of the bedroom! — and turning off app notifications. Some of us might need more extreme measures, like restricting access to the news.

For example, you can temporarily block your smartphone from accessing certain websites and apps, such as Twitter, CNN and even The New York Times — whatever may trap you in a never ending cycle of bingeing on doom and gloom.

On Androids and iPhones, one approach is to download an app that lets you blacklist specific websites. For example, for iPhones, 1Blocker is an ad blocker that includes a feature for restricting specific websites; on Androids, the app BlockSite lets you schedule times to block sites and apps.

Apple users can also use the built-in Screen Time tool for iPhones, and Android users can choose to use Google’s Family Link. Both products have controls to set daily time limits to select apps and websites.

Temporarily blocking access makes it just a bit harder to check the news, which helps break the compulsive desire to doomscroll. Try these steps when you need a breather, like on the weekends or during dinner.


  • The internet splintering of the election deniers: Groups organizing more potentially violent protests over the U.S. presidential election have gravitated to lesser-known online gathering spots including 4chan and Telegram. My colleague Sheera Frenkel wrote that attempts at organizing violent activity might be harder to spot and stop because the organizers have fragmented online and these digital spaces can’t be as easily monitored as open sites like Facebook.

  • Unlike baseball, Twitter goes for five strikes and you’re out: My colleague Kate Conger wrote that Twitter removed more than 70,000 accounts that promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory. The company also changed its policies to impose increasing levels of punishment on people who repeatedly spread election or voting misinformation, including a permanent account suspension after five violations. I wrote last week about the impact of habitual spreaders of false information.

  • The high cost of a bad memory: Imagine having two more guesses at a password before losing $220 million. My colleague Nathaniel Popper wrote about people who own millions of dollars’ worth of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin but can’t access their fortunes because they forgot the password.

Murmuration is the term for starlings crowding together to fly in intricate, cohesive patterns. And this ballet of birds is beautiful.


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