During press conferences over the past month or so, Governor Jared Polis has repeatedly said how easy it is for people atop the COVID-19 vaccination priority list (currently Coloradans age 65 and above, as well as those associated with schools and child-care facilities, in addition to the health-care workers and first responders who initially topped the list) to figure out how, when and where to be inoculated. But plenty of folks beg to differ, and with good reason: Like most official sites, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's vaccine page is a major challenge to navigate even for those with above-average computer skills, and those sites associated with individual hospital systems and companies with pharmacies range from fairly straightforward to utterly incomprehensible.
Enter Nick Muerdter, a software engineer who figured that trying to build a more user-friendly application would be "fun to dig into." Over the course of a few days, totally on his own time, he created the Colorado COVID-19 Vaccine Finder website, which allows people to easily find out if a pharmacy near them has vaccine available and schedule an appointment...if any are available.
The site has already been endorsed by none other than Polis, who shared the link on his personal Facebook page, helping to exponentially raise its profile. On February 16, shortly after Muerdter posted about the page on Reddit, a service with which he was hardly an expert (he signed up for his account that day), it registered around 9,000 unique visits. That total went up to 20,000 by mid-afternoon February 17.
Muerdter is reluctant to knock online efforts by government types to streamline the process, in part because he actually falls into the same category; he works for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But he does concede that a problem exists.
"I heard from a lot of co-workers about their trials and tribulations trying to get their parents set up for vaccinations — the frustrations tied to it," he points out. "And once I started looking at the sites, I saw exactly what they were talking about. You'd type in a Zip Code and select a store and answer questions, only to find out there was no availability — and then you'd have to start over, select another store and go through the same thing again. It just seemed ridiculous in a way, and as a computer programmer, I like automating things. I thought, maybe there's a way to collect this information that might be easier to use than going through all that rigmarole every time you needed to schedule an appointment."
He started working on the problem in earnest about a week ago, devoting time each night and over the weekend. Before long, he came up with a way to scan information from all of the commercial pharmacies with vaccine and build tools that allow scheduling from a single page with just a few clicks.
A few obstacles arose along the way. For instance, his scans were blocked by both King Soopers and Walmart stores — something he believes happened automatically because of security protocols, as opposed to active obstructionism. The Walmart situation seems to have been resolved, and he notes that he's talking to tech folks at King Soopers to see if there's a way to access that data, too. But meanwhile, scans from CVS, Safeway and Walgreens stores, in addition to Walmarts, are ongoing.
At first Muerdter had no idea how to get the word out about the page — but that turned out to be far simpler than he anticipated. A Reddit user tagged Polis, and either the governor or someone with access to his account (Muerdter isn't sure which) sent him a direct message that led to the Facebook mention. The rest is Internet history.
Of course, the Finder, like all of these sites, is limited by the amount of vaccine available — and with shipments delayed by the cold wave that struck much of the country, the page is presently showing no appointments available at CVS, Safeway or Albertsons statewide. Moreover, appointments at Walgreens and Walmarts are currently only available in locations outside the Denver metro area.
Prior to the website's launch, a colleague of Muerdter set up an appointment so that he could chat with a CDPHE yesterday afternoon. Muerdter describes it as "a fairly high-level discussion of how the tool works behind the scenes, and talking about some potential ways to better collaborate or tie in with other efforts the state is looking into or other coding efforts across the country."
As for his own site's launch, he says, "Maybe I jumped the gun a little bit, but I figured if it's useful, I wanted to get it out there as soon as possible. Hopefully, it will be a short-lived tool that serves its purpose, and if things start working more efficiently, it can wind down. But in the meantime, I want to get it out there and get it used."
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