Courtney Sheridan’s grandmother received her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in late January, but only after a lengthy time on a waitlist.
“She put her name on as many waitlists as she could find. We have family in New Jersey as well, so she even looked at options outside of Pennsylvania,” said Sheridan, a first-year computer science student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Computing and Information. “She said she was much relieved and will be glad when the second dose is on board. She also felt fortunate to be able to get the vaccine.”
This experience helped highlight to her how challenging vaccine distribution and access can be.
To do something about it, Sheridan, three other Pitt computer science students and collaborators from Harvard University and Swarthmore College created VaccinatePA, a crowdsourced website that Pennsylvanians can use to find vaccination sites, rather than inundate hospitals and pharmacies with calls asking about vaccine availability.
The site contains information on clinics in every Pennsylvania county, and data is updated every day by volunteers. The site includes each clinic’s name, address and website, as well as notes on vaccine availability.
“Having watched my grandmother’s frustration over finding a vaccine provider makes the impact of the group’s work feel much more tangible, and the reward of knowing that we could help save some others this frustration is empowering,” Sheridan said.
“I thought this would be just as important for Pennsylvania to have,” said Wang, a junior computer science student at Pitt. “Here, it’s on the individual to reach out to all these locations near them and determine the availability of the vaccine. We wanted to get that information and make it much easier for people. It was something I had messed around with on my own, but it quickly became something I needed help on.”Since its launch in late January, the website attracted more than 100,000 users, with thousands more visiting each day. Group co-founder Zhengming Wang said he learned lessons from similar volunteer work being done in California for its own rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Need for volunteers
Though the VaccinatePA team spends upwards of five hours a day on the website while balancing classes, the initiative is completely sustained by volunteers, mainly Pitt students, who make calls to hospitals, clinics and pharmacies to inquire about vaccine availability. The site does not represent the government or any health care provider and is not supplemented by any grants.
Pitt students aren’t the only volunteers working on site updates: Alumni, students from other universities and community members are also making calls to clinics for the site. And the core team is seeking more.
“We have had over 200 people sign up and have started giving them instructions on calling clinics,” said Sheridan. “We’d like more people calling every day to make the data on the site even more accurate.”
By calling clinics to get vaccine updates, the team says it’s not just vaccine patients whose time is saved.
“It also saves the Pennsylvania Department of Health and clinics time being spent on these calls asking if they have the vaccine,” said Andrea Michael, a senior computer science student at Pitt who plans to continue working with the VaccinatePA team after graduating. “Getting the volunteers more engaged, getting more volunteers and kind of restructuring how our website’s database is formed in the first place, that’s all for the goal of getting this out to as many people as possible and get as many locations with the vaccines as soon as possible.”
Continuing to serve
The team plans to update the website further when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moves out of the 1A phase for vaccination.
“We’re not done yet. We’re improving every day,” said Richie Goulazian, a Pitt sophomore computer science student on the team. “At first, this seemed like an interesting problem and I went for it, and now here we are.”
VaccinatePA has a survey for people to fill out to give the team feedback, which the team says has been mostly positive.
“It’s really great to see the notes. We try to post one or two every couple days to boost everyone’s moods,” said Sheridan. “It’s amazing to see how much of an impact the site is making.”
For more information, or to volunteer, visit vaccinatepa.org.