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Terps Seek to Shorten Vaccine Appointment Waiting Game

Alum’s Facebook Group, Student’s Website and Twitter Feed Help Connect Marylanders With Openings

By Liam Farrell

COVID vaccination site

Photo by Kenneth K. Lam/The Baltimore Sun via AP

A patient registers for a COVID-19 vaccination at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore last week. Two Terps are helping residents get access to the coveted appointments.

It can take a village these days to track down a scarce COVID-19 vaccination appointment, with friends and family sometimes juggling hours of phone calls and banks of laptops logged into pharmacy, local health department, grocery store and hospital websites to get a vulnerable loved one the needed pair of shots.

Now two Terps are stepping into the gap to simplify the process by creating social media tools based on everything from big data analysis to online bulletin boards.

After reading a CNN article about a group in New Orleans that connects people with agencies that have to get rid of expiring vaccine doses, Elliot Hazzard ’17 started the Facebook group  Maryland Vaccine Hunters last month to link tech-savvy volunteers with residents looking for vaccines.

“I just wanted to create an information hub that would use crowdsourcing to make things much easier,” Hazzard said. 

States across the nation are struggling to secure doses of the two available vaccines, due to manufacturing backups, supply-chain logistical snags and the lack of a centralized distribution plan. 

The state opened its third mass vaccination site at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore last week and plans to provide up to 2,000 vaccinations per day in early March. The federal government is currently sending Maryland approximately 14,000 doses per day for the 2 million people who are eligible for the vaccine in Phase 1. 

Part bulletin board and part sounding board, the Vaccine Hunters Facebook group has more than 42,000 members and information on where vaccines are being offered, with a lively discussion section noting both need and success: “Anybody know what is the best time to try Six Flags tomorrow?;” “Looking for help! Not very computer oriented;” “My special needs daughter … now has an appointment at M&T Stadium thanks to a wonderful friend I met in this group.”

Hazzard, who graduated with a degree in geographic information systems and works as a GIS technician with BGE, said his educational background has come in handy as well. Giant, for example, limits appointment searches by ZIP code, so Hazzard has been working on finding which ZIP codes in Maryland will produce the most options.

“Each website has its own little quirks. It’s been very frustrating for many people,” he said. “it’s truly wonderful to know I’ve helped.”

Computer science major Mathew Steininger ’21 is using another strategy through his MDVax website and Twitter feed to give immediate alerts for available vaccine appointments.

“I keep reading articles of people on the computer all day refreshing pages,” he said. “I thought, maybe I can build something to help.”

So with a technique called “web scraping,” Steininger can publish in real time when vaccine portals update and change their information about available appointments. It’s a technique that he is familiar with, albeit in a different type of competition—Steininger was a 2019 Pitch Dingman finalist at UMD for “crepkitchen,” a subscription service that updated users on limited-edition sneaker and clothing releases.

The Reisterstown native is working to iron out some of the “false positives” being sent out as mistakenly indicating an available appointment, but he is taking heart from any tweet that thanks his effort.

“It’s very much a game of cat and mouse,” he said.

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