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Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - As many across Iowa are struggling to get a COVID-19 vaccine appointment - and with the state abandoning plans for a centralized scheduling tool - an Iowa City application developer has designed a program that has helped dozens.
Earlier this week, Brian Finley created the @IAVaccineAlerts Twitter account, which automatically tweets out available appointments at Iowa retail pharmacies.
Within days of its launch, the account has drawn thousands of followers and helped dozens schedule appointments.
'So much of what I've done in my professional life has been about using technology to do something better,” said Finley, who works at the University of Iowa's Information Technology Services. 'So much of it boils down to just communication and putting something in a meaningful, understandable format.”
Creating the account 'felt like the obvious solution” to problems many are facing in finding appointments.
'I'm just trying to get people vaccinated,” he said. 'I'm trying to make it so we don't have to worry about taking my kid to the park. It's never going back to normal-normal, but to return to a point where your day-to-day life can resume in a way that is fulfilling and unencumbered by a thing that's killed almost half a million people.”
Like many Iowans with underlying medical conditions, Finley became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine on Monday. To track down available appointments for himself and some of his relatives, he used his programming skills to develop a tool using nationwide vaccine tracking websites.
The tool worked, so Finley said he decided to open it up to everyone.
His program aggregates data on appointments available online through websites like COVID-19 Vaccine Spotter and automatically tweets them out. The programming checks these sites every few minutes and issues a notice when there's an appointment opening at a Hy-Vee, CVS and Walgreens in Iowa.
Within hours of its launch Wednesday, the @IAVaccineAlerts account became hugely popular. By Friday afternoon, it had gained more than 12,500 followers - and still was growing.
'It just kind of blows my mind,” he said. 'But at the same time, it brings up the questions of equity and accessibility.”
Many Iowans who qualify have struggled to track down and obtain a COVID-19 vaccine.
Earlier this year, Iowa officials said they had selected Microsoft to develop a centralized online scheduling system. But only a few days later, Gov. Kim Reynolds said those plans were off.
'When we dug into what the options were and what was available and the timeline to get that done, it just didn't make sense for us to move forward, especially with the registration and scheduling component because of all the different providers that are tied into that right now and the systems that they had,” the governor said in mid-February.
A 211 call center is taking basic questions about the vaccines and, as of last week, began helping older Iowans navigate the process of getting an appointment.
Initially when vaccines opened up in the state for those aged 65 and older, most appointments were scheduled through websites and other online systems. Seniors without internet access or otherwise struggled to use technology felt left behind, often forced to rely on relatives or friends to track down appointments.
Then state officials greatly expanded eligibility to include those 64 and younger with underlying medical conditions, meaning the majority of Iowa's population now qualifies for a vaccine.
Demand still far outweighs current supply. Not everyone who wants an appointment can get one, public health officials warn.
That high demand means open appointments disappear rapidly.
'I don't want there to be a need to have this (account). It's just frustrating that the balance between supply and demand is so off, and now with such a wide net they're casting with the new requirements,” Finley said.
The account also has hosted various discussions among Iowans about the lack of 'meaningful access” to COVID-19 vaccines. One user pointed out that though it would be relatively easy for someone to sign up for an appointment, there are many who are homebound, don't have a car or are otherwise unable to travel.
As the account has gained greater use and popularity, Finley also struggled with the line between sharing information as broadly as possible and sharing information to those who need it most. It's becoming clear that Iowans do not need proof of an underlying medical condition to get a vaccine despite the guidelines.
Finley has also become aware that some people who have the capacity to take time off from work and drive miles to get a vaccine have used the account to get appointments in other parts of the state.
One doctor at a hospital in rural Western Iowa who contacted Finley this week raised concerns about just that. The hospital had been referring its elderly patients to a local Hy-Vee for appointments, which previously had been relatively easy to obtain.
But since the account was created, the doctor told Finley the seniors in his community - who don't have internet access - have been unable to get a vaccine because more tech-savvy individuals from outside the area are grabbing the appointment slots.
'I would hate to imagine that we're doing any kind of harm or making more difficult for them,” Finley said.
But at the same time, Finley noted there is a benefit to getting as many shots in arms as possible. The more vaccines are administered to Iowans, the closer the state is to reaching herd immunity against the novel coronavirus.
Ultimately, his goal is to be able to delete the account because no one needs help tracking down a shot, Finley said.
However, there still are serious issues when it comes to meaningful access to vaccines. Finley hopes state and local public health officials will take steps to ensure those barriers are addressed.
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