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With Few Details From Health Officials, Volunteers Create COVID-19 Vaccine Database

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The vaccine rollout across the country continues to flail. California has administered only about half the COVID-19 shots available in the state. That's why a bunch of volunteer tech workers are stepping in to provide information when the government doesn't. Lesley McClurg of member station KQED explains.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, Tim Schwartz was watching the nightly news.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: New guidelines will be issued today that will expand vaccine eligibility to everyone...

MCCLURG: Schwartz suddenly qualified for a shot. He's a 67-year-old resident of San Francisco, but he had no idea how to get one.

TIM SCHWARTZ: Nobody's calling me, emailing me, telling I'm eligible for anything.

MCCLURG: He checked his doctor's office, but they weren't vaccinating people his age. So he went down to his local pharmacist and asked if they were offering shots.

SCHWARTZ: And he said no. He had heard from corporate - Walgreens' corporate office that they might in the future get it.

MCCLURG: Schwartz started scouring the Internet but to no avail. Even California's public health website didn't provide any links to drive-up sites, walk-up appointments or even a help desk.

SCHWARTZ: Oh, it's frustrating that in one of the most tech-savvy cities in the most tech-savvy country in the world that this kind of information is not available to the residents.

MCCLURG: Also frustrated by the situation is Patrick McKenzie. He's a tech worker based in Tokyo with ties to California. He was floored that vaccines were sitting on shelves rather than saving lives.

PATRICK MCKENZIE: So I tweeted out on Twitter and said, one of the best things that I could imagine a technologist spending time on right now is calling the places that could have the vaccine and putting who says yes in a single place.

MCCLURG: The call to arms roused many of McKenzie's followers, which is a hundred thousand people. A group of really smart folks started designing a dashboard immediately. A few hours later, McKenzie checked in on his friends.

MCKENZIE: This is all fantastic. You know, just one thing, though - when you're doing the call center management, I have some suggestions. And then one thing led to another.

MCCLURG: They launched a website the next morning. Less than a week later, 250 volunteers were calling hundreds of doctors and pharmacists across the state every day. One afternoon, they found 60 new places offering shots just in Los Angeles. Their dashboard, called VaccinateCA, offers up-to-date information about where supplies exist, who qualifies and how to make an appointment. Similar efforts are underway in Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania. Throughout the pandemic, private citizens have offered everything from case tallies to risk calculators.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: If you go to those sites, you get much more accurate data in a more timely way than even the federal government's delivering, at least today.

MCCLURG: Dr. Georges Benjamin is the executive director of the American Public Health Association.

BENJAMIN: I think this citizen engagement is here to stay.

MCCLURG: Though he stresses crowdsourcing has its limitations. Without regulation, no one is checking to see if information stays accurate or up to date. Plus, it's only available to people with access to technology. Benjamin stresses the vaccine rollout will flail until better information is available for everyone.

BENJAMIN: So that means communicating with trusted messengers. That means flyers. That means radio, TV. That means social media.

MCCLURG: He hopes the new Biden administration leads communication efforts from the federal level rather than rely on underfunded local health departments. In the meantime, society is depending on volunteers like tech worker Patrick McKenzie to fill the government's void of reliable information.

MCKENZIE: I have never worked on anything that feels as important as what we have done in the last week, and I hope that we are able to do it much faster over the next week.

MCCLURG: He says his team will keep working day and night as long as their effort ensures more people get their shots.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.