After a bout with COVID-19, Huntington resident Mark Wilson learned he had a heart condition that made him eligible for a vaccine long before many in his age group.
The 38-year-old biopharmaceutical worker said his pre-existing condition meant securing a vaccine appointment — a consistent source of consternation on Long Island and across the state — became "extremely important."
Wilson scored an appointment quickly and stress-free with the assistance of a new website, which provided a real-time alert via a text message of vacant appointments at his site of choice, he said.
"I put my information in. I gave my cell phone number, I say about a week and a half later, an appointment opened up at Stony Brook," said Wilson, who is scheduled for an April 5 shot in the arm.
"To be automatically alerted when an appointment opens up," he said, "it’s an extremely valuable tool."
Wilson made his appointment on gregbillig.com/vaccine — one of many free websites created by tech-savvy volunteers to help book a highly sought-after date and time for a vaccine.
The websites, which accept donations, generally function through algorithms to narrow a search and help users avoid scouring myriad governmental internet pages. The sites also list websites linked to health providers and pharmacies to find available appointments.
As of Sunday afternoon, the TurboVax Twitter account had more than 126,000 followers. Available appointments and corresponding dates, times and locations, are tweeted multiple times daily.
The website nycvaccinelist.com shows users vaccination sites on Long Island and across the state as well as how many appointments are available for particular dates and locations. It offers a button that redirects users to each site’s official vaccine sign-up webpage.
"We find appointments by checking official government, healthcare and pharmacy websites," according to a statement on its homepage.
Web-heavy rollout criticized
The state’s vaccination rollout has been roundly criticized over what many have said is an inherent expectation people looking for an appointment are web-proficient, a skill that sometimes escapes some of the state’s most vulnerable such as senior citizens, and low-income families, who may not have internet access.
"This is a very disjointed process and it’s causing a lot of frustration, and it really didn’t have to be this way," said Martine Hackett, associate professor and director of public health programs at Hofstra University. "These websites, by aggregating information, by pulling together information from all of these different websites, certainly are streamlining a challenging process."
Hackett said the new batch of sites are an added resource but also have imperfections.
For example, she said, the websites often do not monitor for pop-up vaccine sites, which government and health officials sporadically open in neighborhoods hardest hit by the pandemic. The sites also generally don’t book appointments, only notifying users of open vaccine slots.
In an email, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stopped short of endorsing the websites but said their role is welcomed.
"While we cannot vouch for any service specifically, we appreciate New Yorkers’ ingenuity and efforts to support our goal of getting as many shots into arms as humanly possible," said spokesman Jack Sterne. "Vaccine supply is increasing, but doses are still in short supply, and to the extent these services help New Yorkers get vaccinated, we thank them for their work," he said.
Keeping it simple
Greg Billig, 39, of Washington Heights, the developer of the website used by Wilson, said he initially created it after becoming frustrated trying to help his elderly parents from Tarrytown in Westchester County get appointments. Out of that frustration came a bot, or algorithm, that alerts the user through a text message of available appointments
"My father called me, ranting and raving, screaming his head off, about how difficult it was to get an appointment," Billig said. "I realized, why am I spending all this time and effort, when I could just write a bot, that will monitor this, and send me a text message when there is an appointment?"
With the help of his bot, Billig landed vaccine appointments for his parents, a feat he said was "a big relief."
The site took off from there. Billig, a longtime information technology employee and proficient in digital automation, launched his website Jan. 31. His service requires only a phone number capable of receiving text messages. A user inputs a selected vaccine site and is sent a text when an opening becomes available, Billig said.
"Not everybody responds to text message in a timely manner," he said. "I would say the window of opportunity is sometimes only a few minutes."
Billig said he's pleased he can provide a critical service to those searching for a shot.
"If there is ever a time for people to step up and do something for their community and do something for the public to contribute to the cause," Billig said, "this is it."
Others use less tech-intensive methods like emails or phone calls to help Long Islanders keep track of open appointments and register.
That’s what friends Abby Garten, 15, Madison Grady, 15, and Emma Gross, 16, all sophomores at Jericho High School, have done through an initiative dubbed "Project Vaccine Angels."
Through an email address, email@example.com, they collect names and phone numbers of people seeking vaccine appointments, Garten said. They then take that information and scour websites for available appointments and make the registrations themselves.
"I knew that making appointments for COVID vaccines was very difficult. I couldn’t even make one myself, at first," she said. "I imagined my grandparents, and other senior citizens I know who can barely text or write an email, and how difficult it would be for them."
Garten estimated she and her two pals each spent about five hours a week on the task.
"Twenty-five people doesn’t sound like a lot, but really it is," she said. "Any small change that me and two high schoolers can help make, to help people get vaccinated, is more than we’d ever thought it would be."