Shelly Gutierrez was scrolling through Twitter on Wednesday February 10 when she saw a tweet from @NYCShotSlots broadcasting an opening for a vaccine appointment near her Queens apartment. Though she didn’t snag the appointment featured in the tweet, she rushed to NYCVaccineList.com, the vaccine appointment aggregator that, she learned, @NYCShotSlots pulls from, to look for other openings.
Around 1 a.m., Gutierrez, 26 and a restaurant worker, finally found—and registered for—an appointment in Queens that was open to residents of New York City. “I was in disbelief,” said Gutierrez. “I kept looking at my email confirmation so many times before going to sleep to make sure it was real.”
@NYCShotSlots and its contemporary, @TurboVax, are Twitter accounts that post available New York City vaccine appointments, anywhere from every couple hours to multiple times per hour. Both are offshoots of the vaccine appointment aggregation sites NYCVaccineList.com and TurboVax.info. The Twitter accounts associated with the aggregation sites make it easier for New Yorkers to make appointments, without spending hours looking.
Booking vaccine appointments is a tedious process when using the official government site, VaccineFinder.NYC.Gov. On that site, users must check for appointments using the interface provided from multiple individual locations, rather than browsing appointment availability city-wide. The process is so tedious, in fact, that most eligible New Yorkers are only able to get appointments if they enlist friends or family members to help check the many provider websites so they don’t have to scavenge alone.
Thus, there is strength in numbers: NYCVaccineList.com is run by a host of volunteers. And TurboVax.info is a bot that sends information straight to Twitter, created by Huge Ma, a software engineer.
Getting a vaccine appointment “was much more challenging that I’d like to be,” said a high school teacher, 36, from Ditmas Park, who didn’t want to use her name, in order to preserve the privacy of her father, on whose behalf she found an appointment. “Even my relatively tech-savvy and certainly-willing-to-work-hard-to-get-a-slot family member wouldn’t have been able to find this.”
She found out about TurboVax on Reddit and monitored the site between Zoom parent-teacher conferences. Then, to speed up the process, she began using a Google Chrome extension that automatically refreshed the page and alerted her when an appointment was available. At 10 p.m. on Friday February 5, after checking the site for just about 12 hours, she scored an appointment for her father for 9 a.m. the next morning.
Upon getting the appointment, she said, she felt immense relief and “surprisingly strong feelings” that accompanied what she described as the “coming of age moment” of scheduling a medical appointment for a parent for the first time. “That’s not something I anticipated to happen this year.”
As lucky as the high school teacher is, it’s worth noting all the extra programs and networks she had to utilize to be able to get her father an appointment.
Raphael Lee, the Health Program Director for U.S. Digital Response, which provides tech support for governments in crisis, says that many U.S. organizations and governments are struggling with the same issues as the New York City official vaccine site. And while he clarified he cannot “speak specifically to New York City’s vaccination efforts,” Lee said that “the best strategies for successful vaccine programs are those that are interoperable, accessible, and transparent.” By “interoperable,” Lee means understandable and workable in harmony with other systems, such as those of multiple individual vaccine providers.
“They scale to accommodate high traffic, they’re transparent in how they handle user data, they’re interoperable with other solutions, and they’re accessible to all people,” he said.
Still, those who are able to use technology and Twitter to score a vaccination are grateful. Gutierrez, who was vaccinated at Elmhurst Hospital on February 11, was surprised to get an appointment so late at night thanks to the Twitter account. “I didn’t think time slot openings would be posted so early in the morning, at midnight/1am when most people would be sleeping,” she said. “I felt really lucky to catch that when I could.”