Philly’s coronavirus response

Vaccinate PA’s online appointment finder has expanded to Philadelphia

City health officials aren’t endorsing the site, however, because they can’t ensure accuracy.

Vaccinate PA offers a county-by-county breakdown of potential vaccine appointments for eligible residents

Vaccinate PA offers a county-by-county breakdown of potential vaccine appointments for eligible residents

Vaccinate PA / Billy Penn illustration
michaelawinberg-2020-2

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Fewer and fewer people are visiting VaccinatePA.org these days, but the trio of college students behind the popular Pennsylvania vaccine finder takes that as a good sign.

“It’s unintuitive, but I look at a big red 10% drop [in visitors] and think, hopefully we’re doing some good,” said co-founder Richard Goulazian, a 19-year-old from Bucks County.

The volunteer-run database, which helps surface available appointments for eligible Pennsylvania residents, clocked 300k visits in the two months after its mid-January launch. If not as many people are finding it now, Goulazian said, it’s likely because they’ve gotten the coveted doses, or because the process is getting easier.

Since Philadelphia’s vaccination program is separate from the rest of the state, the database only recently started including options in the city.

City dwellers who fall under the eligible categories (currently Phase 1A and 1B) can now check the site for info on which pharmacies, clinics, hospitals and other providers may be offering appointments, or find links to register for potential invitations.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is on board with the site, according to a statement given to ABC27 in February. But in Philly, Health Commissioner Thomas Farley wasn’t so sure.

“I was concerned when I first saw it that the data did not appear to be very accurate,” Farley said on Tuesday.

Goulazian created the site with two other friends, fellow University of Pittsburgh computer science major Zhengming Wang and Harvard law student Seth Rubinstein. Rubinstein said he never received any direct criticism about the site from anyone in Philadelphia government. He defended the operation, saying they employ a “rigorous” process for maintaining accuracy — drawing their info directly from the Health Department’s vaccine provider map and performing data reviews multiple times per week.

Farley said the city is working on a site of its own that has some of the same functionality, although he couldn’t give a timeline on when it might come together.

That lack of an official spot that let people easily see all the vaccination options is what spurred the creation of Vaccinate PA in the first place.

Wang and Rubinstein met while volunteering for a similar vaccine info site. They discovered they were both from the Philly ‘burbs, and lamented Pennsylvania’s confusing system, which they thought could be especially challenging for seniors.

“We were taking our own time developing the site,” Wang said. “Then the moment Pennsylvania opened Phase 1a, it was like, ‘Oh snap, this is going to be a thing.’ Our urgency grew exponentially.”

At first, they did all the research themselves. Then they added a Google Form to recruit volunteers, and raked in hundreds of helping hands.

Now Vaccinate PA maintains a rotating cast of volunteers who are scheduled to call everywhere from health care centers to community clinics to independent pharmacies, and ask what they’ve got available. That information ends up being updated about once a day.

The site also now partners with online portal VaccineSpotter.org, which auto-updates the available dose information for major pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens.

When you visit, you can sort by county. Distributors in that area will be listed on-screen with near-real-time updates on appointment availability and registration links.

“We’re just making it as easy as possible to determine where in your county or nearby to you you can get a vaccine,” said Goulazian. “You can access the information without having to make duplicative calls, which is stressful for the individual and the providers.”

Asked to explain Health Commissioner Farley’s concerns, department spokesperson Jim Garrow didn’t name any specific inaccuracies that Farley found on VaccinatePA.org. The problem, he said, is that officials aren’t directly monitoring the site for accuracy.

“We are uncomfortable asking people to rely on sites like these because we know that we’re not submitting information to them,” Garrow said, “so we can’t be sure that the information is up-to-date or correct.”

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