As COVID-19 vaccines rolled out at the beginning of the year, Marek Laska knew he would get the shot but his turn was still a long way off.
Laska, a software engineer and co-founder of Research Square Platform, a Durham-based preprint server aimed at rapidly disseminating scientific research, wanted to understand how people were getting connected to vaccines. He noticed that, while vaccine doses were available, appointment slots at clinics and county events were going unscheduled.
“It was heartbreaking to see the most precious commodity, the COVID vaccine, being underutilized,” Laska says. “Everyone I know wanted to be vaccinated. They just didn’t know how best to schedule an appointment.”
So, using a series of bots, or pieces of software that automatically interact with websites as a human would do, Laska developed a system to help people he knew get vaccinated. The initial bot extracted data about vaccine distribution and utilization in North Carolina, allowing Laska to see which providers had vaccines. He then modified the program to show the locations of available vaccination appointments for scheduling.
In January, Laska started using the system to sign up elderly friends and other eligible people he knew. His work spread by word of mouth. As talk of schools reopening began, local teachers, staff, and parents reached out to Laska for help, including at the Montessori Community School in Durham, whose staff used his system to get vaccinated in February.
The state’s changing criteria for vaccination eligibility created confusion which, Laska says, contributed to vaccine hesitancy and mistrust. So he approached Ranya Hahn, the human resources director at Participate Learning, a Chapel Hill-based education consulting company. Hahn developed webinars and small group sessions to distribute information and allow people to ask questions of experts in small group settings.
“Open communication and a focus on positive messaging have enabled faster vaccination, with less fear,” Hahn says. “Highlighting what people look forward to after a year of isolation, like my colleague who is eager to hug her 101-yearold grandma again, is a reminder for people of what we’ve given up and what we all dare to hope for.”
As Hahn and Laska worked to share information, Laska teamed up with his co-worker, Luciana Leopold, the systems innovation team manager at Research Square, to expand his program’s reach across the state as the vaccine rollout expanded.
Throughout January and February, vaccine scarcity dominated the news cycle but inconsistent vaccine supply to a variety of locations, and ineffective messaging, meant that appointments were going unscheduled.
“People sign up on a waitlist, but there are no timelines or feedback,” Leopold recalls of the process. “People … worried about ‘jumping the line’ or ‘waiting their turn’ rather than signing up if they are eligible.”
The fact that each healthcare system—county and state—uses different processes and terminology added to the confusion.
“Even when people are signed up, sometimes their appointment or an entire vaccination event is canceled without warning or explanation,” Leopold says. “People are now able to reach out to us to get information and schedule or reschedule their appointments instead of being left wondering what happened.”
A modification to one of Laska’s vaccine bots allowed him and Leopold to monitor volunteer availability and encourage others to sign up to volunteer at vaccination sites.
Rebecca Crawford, the deputy area command for Orange County’s COVID-19 task force and finance and administrative operations director for the Orange County Health Department says, now that the vaccine is open to basically everyone, volunteer positions, from traffic direction to vaccine administration personnel, are needed.
“Our goal is to reduce barriers,” Crawford says. “We want to vaccinate everyone in our county and neighboring counties, and there is no way this could be done without volunteers.” Although his system is still private and works by way of word of mouth, Laska posts vaccine data to Twitter—his Twitter handle is @1tamcap—and people can reach out to him for help finding vaccines and volunteer opportunities.
In addition, Laska and Leopold do in-person outreach, going door-to-door to businesses around the Triangle and signing up people for appointments. These encounters build trust, they say, especially for people having trouble finding appointments or who are apprehensive of the government systems.
Laska’s and Leopold’s efforts have connected around 200 people to vaccine appointments, including 50 restaurant workers who were unsure how to sign up.
And they say they see their roles evolving.
“I was surprised by how far our network that started in the Triangle extended throughout North Carolina and across the country as we connected with the friends and family within our sphere,” Leopold told the INDY in an email. “It has been heartening to see the level of compliance and eagerness to get vaccinated.”
“We’ve gotten over a big hurdle,” Laska says. “[But] as booster shots are needed or variants emerge, we will be ready to tackle the system again.”
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