How Technology Can Help with the COVID-19 Vaccine

As a member of the MotionMobs team I am proud of all of the hard work and effort that we put forward in order to develop GuideSafe, Apple and Google’s exposure notification app for the state of Alabama. When the mobile application was released, one of the concerns around it was that eventually a vaccine would be released and the application would no longer be relevant. Unfortunately, time has gone on and the need for exposure notification applications and the ability for citizens to notify others that they have come in contact with someone that tested positive for COVID-19 still persists. While the exposure technology is a great way to be able to do so, a new problem has come into play, and it is one where again, technology might not be the answer, but significantly helpful. 

Thankfully, there is now a vaccine for COVID-19, and similar to the choice of developing an exposure notification app, states have to manage the vaccination process and the tools they choose in order to do so. States have been given a specific allotment of the vaccine, and it is left up to them to manage the logistics of receiving and storing the vaccine as well as distributing and communicating when citizens can receive it. States are varying in terms of how they select who is eligible to receive it, soliciting interest, scheduling, and certifying the vaccine.

Fifty, Sickly United States

Most all of the United States are directing their citizens to their state public health department websites to learn when and how they can receive the vaccine. A majority of the states are following the CDC guidelines as to who is eligible to receive it in tiered phases. However, most states have their citizens feeling like receiving the vaccine is like purchasing a lottery ticket. Different states are handling the administration of the vaccine in their own way, and how they are using technology to do so in a modern and efficient manner is wildly varied. 

A few states come to mind in thinking through the pandemic and how they are handling the distribution of the vaccine.

New York

New York was the state that was the hardest hit in the pandemic. As one of the most populous states in the country, it also received a large number of COVID-19 vaccines. The state is issuing vaccines at a faster rate than most other states in the country, having moved through their Phase 1a distribution of the vaccine and is currently in Phase 1b of distribution. Front-line workers such as healthcare professionals, first responders, educators, as well as citizens over the age of 65 are all eligible to receive the vaccine. 

In order to vaccinate as many citizens that are interested in an efficient manner, New York offers a “vaccine finder” on their public health department website to help residents locate where they can receive the vaccine and sign up for an appointment time. The state also offers an online web application called “Am I Eligible.” The web app is set up like an online registration form that will notify users if they are eligible to receive the vaccine and if they aren’t, allow them to elect to receive notifications for when they are.

California

California, being one of the largest and most populated states, has also been hit hard by the pandemic. As one of the first states to enter lockdown, California has been known to have issued additional lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, as well as significant overcrowding in hospitals during post-holiday surges. As of January 13, 2021, the state expanded the offering of the vaccine to include residents 65 or older, in addition to health care workers and long-term care facility residents. 

Like New York, California recently made a registration website for residents to register for a vaccine appointment at a specific facility. The website for the state also includes a vaccine finder. However, vaccine administration is being managed at the county level. In counties like Los Angeles County, their registration website advertises that the vaccine is still only available for health care workers and that it will not be administering vaccines to residents 65 and older until all healthcare workers are vaccinated. Due to the timing and population of certain counties, California’s vaccination policies and technology resources continue to be a moving target.

Florida

In 2020, Florida was a state that experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases and a rise in popularity amongst tourists with many vacationing in the state for holidays such as the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, and Labor Day. Currently, Florida is allowing for residents 65 or older to receive the vaccine, in addition to health care workers and long-term care facility residents. As of January 14, 2021, Florida’s Department of Public Health announced that it will begin offering a statewide registration website in a few weeks.

Currently, residents are registering online through county websites or are waiting in line at facilities that are administering the vaccine. These facilities are listed on the state and county public health department websites. In addition to registration websites, Florida also offers a way for residents to promptly receive updates from the state by registering for a text alert program.

Alabama

Alabama was one of the first states to proactively launch a Google-Apple exposure notification (GAEN) app as a way to combat the virus. The state also continues to extend its state-wide mask ordinance, with the next mask ordinance to expire on January 22, 2021. Alabama was recently known for an unplanned “super spreader” event, when thousands of college students gathered in downtown Tuscaloosa, AL, to celebrate the University of Alabama’s win in the BCS National Championship. 

Currently, the Alabama Department of Public Health provides COVID-19 resources on their website but registration for the vaccine is being handled on the county level. Several counties have created websites that allow for residents to input their information to receive communication for when they are eligible to receive the vaccine. No timeline or additional information as to where citizens will be able to receive the vaccine are known. The state does offer a vaccine distribution dashboard that is updated weekly that accounts for the number of vaccines the state received and how many have been administered. The state did begin administering the vaccine to healthcare workers and long-term care residents late December 2020. Beginning January 18, 2021, the state will also offer the vaccine to first responders as well as residents over the age of 75.

Can Technology Help?

For now, most states are trying to manage the logistics of administering the COVID-19 vaccine to its residents that need it the most. This vaccine creates a number of complexities, not only around storage requirements and booster administration, but also logistically how to manage the process as a whole. A few areas stand out as ones that would benefit from the use of additional technology to improve the vaccination process.

Registration and Tracking

As of writing, most states offer a registration website for residents to make appointments for vaccines. It is unclear how these registrations integrate with public health department systems and health care providers to track and ensure that the number of vaccines and the correct boosters of the vaccine are administered. It would be beneficial to create a centralized system that would allow for all parties involved, including residents, to be able to receive notification of when and where they are eligible to receive the vaccine. This would allow for residents to be notified in a staggered manner, opening up vaccination appointment registration when appropriate, as well as allowing for the administration of the vaccine to be tracked on a state-wide and county level. 

This would also allow for better communication to those that are eligible. To date, registration websites and phone lines are being overwhelmed with those that are interested in receiving the vaccine but may not be eligible or near a facility that is administering it. A centralized application could facilitate these notifications and scheduling, allowing for health care providers to focus on administering the vaccine as quickly as possible.

Vaccination Credentials

Another concern that surrounds administering the vaccine are the paper card credentials that serve as a reminder for residents to receive their booster or second shot of the vaccine. Residents are given the card after the first administration to document the date and administrator. Many healthcare workers have been seen on social media showcasing their vaccine credential cards. While the card is somewhat simple, the question has come up: Is there a better way to store these credentials in a digital format? 

By storing these records digitally, in the format like a Google or Apple wallet card, those that have received the vaccine can easily and securely keep track of when, which kind, and which stage of the vaccine they received. It could be assumed that when more citizens start to receive the vaccine, the likelihood of those citizens losing or misplacing their cards would increase as well, and there is also a risk of tampering with paper cards when vaccination status is required for entry, whether to a country or a building. 

Locations that administer the vaccine will be responsible for sending their vaccination data to their state’s public health department database. Secure digital vaccination credentials protect the patient, the administrating facility, and any entity needing to verify an individual’s vaccination status. It’s a careful balance of protecting patient privacy and providing secure validation. While this technology could be used by some states, the adoption and usage of digital credentials would vary by state, similar to states developing their own exposure notification apps.

Let’s go, 2021!

In the end, the offering of a vaccine is very hopeful after all that transpired in 2020. Preferably, states would be seeking technology that helps communicate to their residents when and how they can receive the vaccine and manage their vaccine credentials. This is not only to assist with the current administration of the vaccine, but also for future vaccine administrations that might be offered in the future. Hopefully, additional technology will evolve and be offered, but, for now, check with your local county and state to understand when you and your family members are eligible to receive the vaccine.

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