Volunteer-run website aims to help people in Pa. schedule COVID-19 vaccines

About 100 volunteers place hundreds of calls a day to vaccine providers to learn which ones are accepting appointments.

By Brett Sholtis

Allison Brown, Union Mills Chadds Ford School District nurse, receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from RN Penny Caracas.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Allison Brown, Union Mills Chadds Ford School District nurse, receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from RN Penny Caracas.

(Harrisburg) — A volunteer-run website is intended to make it easier for people to schedule an appointment to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

The VaccinatePA.org site was launched by two University of Pittsburgh computer science undergraduates along with Seth Rubinstein, a Harvard Law School student living in Montgomery County.

Users are asked to choose a county. From there, they’re presented with an list of providers according to which ones have recently reported that they’re taking appointments.

Some Pennsylvanians have said attempting to book appointments through the state’s website is time-consuming and often fruitless. The goal with this site, Rubinstein said, is to make the process simpler and less time-consuming for people who may not be tech-savvy or have a lot of spare time.

“What it’s really boiled down to, getting a vaccine, is having the time and the bandwidth and the technical familiarity to do a lot and lot of research,” he said. “We’re trying to reduce that burden.”

The site works by pulling in data from the Pa. Department of Health interactive map, along with weekly updates from the state on where vaccines were distributed, Rubinstein said. “But the real value add, what we’re trying to do to help, is by actually having called those places as recently as possible to get the status on whether they have it.”

About a hundred volunteers place “several hundred calls” per day to keep that information fresh. Those volunteers include students, working adults and older Pennsylvanians who used the website and then asked how they could help others, he said.

Rubenstein said he was stuck at home working on his law degree when the idea came to him. He connected with University of Pittsburgh computer science students Richie Goulazian and Ming Wang.

A core team of 10 volunteers built the site, and Rubinstein reached out to his alma mater, Swarthmore, as well as Pitt and Temple University, and began recruiting volunteers who could place the phone calls. The team is working to further automate that process by getting regular updates from the providers.

Though it’s taken untold hours of volunteer work to make a reality since they began in January, so far the effort has only cost $8, used to register the vaccinatepa.org web domain. That money, he says, was “self-funded.”

Rubinstein is a vocal supporter of efforts in the state General Assembly to create a central registry for vaccine appointments. He sees the site as a stop-gap measure that makes the process easier until then.

Asked to comment on the effort, the Pennsylvania Department of Health says it “is laser-focused on working with trusted local providers to get vaccine in arms as quickly as it is available from the federal government. It appears that Vaccinate PA has the same goal in mind. The department will continue to keep the map of trusted local vaccine providers as updated as possible.”

Providers across Pennsylvania are expected to get a record number of vaccines this week. The state will get more than 225,000 first doses and 185,000 second doses, Health Department Special Assistant to the Secretary Lindsey Mauldin said Tuesday. More than 400,000 doses total are expected this week.


Brett Sholtis
Brett Sholtis

Brett Sholtis is a health reporter for WITF/Transforming Health. Sholtis is the 2021-2022 Reveal Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grantee for Mental Health Investigative Journalism with the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. His award-winning work on problem areas in mental health policy and policing helped to get a woman moved from a county jail to a psychiatric facility. Sholtis is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard Kosovo campaign veteran.

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