Last month, I sat in my Brooklyn apartment and used all the colorful language I know to curse the state of New York's horribly complex maze of vaccine appointment scheduling websites. My in-laws, who are in their 70s, had just become eligible to get vaccinated, and securing appointments for them was my highest priority. Scheduling that appointment has proven to be incredibly complicated. Despite having many months to prepare, New York government's digital infrastructure has proven inadequate for handling a predictably large amount of demand for vaccinations.
When the government failed, a 31-year-old software engineer came to the rescue. Using just $50 and two weeks of time, New York resident and Airbnb engineer Huge Ma built a competing product called TurboVax which collects appointment availability information from NYC Vaccine Hub (the scheduler for 16 vaccination sites), NYC Health and Hospitals (21 sites), and NYS Vaccination Centers (6 sites).
He also built a bot that tweets out appointments when available:
[NYC H+H · Brooklyn] Woodhull Hospital: 41 appts
Feb 11 – 7:00AM, 7:15AM, 7:30AM, 7:45AM and 37 morehttps://t.co/iVRnr1hjSf
— TurboVax (@turbovax) February 10, 2021
TurboVax does not book appointments on a patient's behalf, but it does let patients know where there is availability and directs them to the appropriate website. Many of the existing government-run websites fail to notify patients when new appointments open up; TurboVax's tweetbot remedies that. Of course, TurboVax's innovation in terms of letting users know which appointments are available (and where) doesn't change the fact that vaccines are still incredibly scarce, with strict rules that govern who is allowed to receive them.
"This wasn't a priority for governments, which was unfortunate," Ma told The New York Times earlier this week. "But everyone has a role to play in the pandemic, and I'm just doing the very little that I can to make it a little bit easier."
It's unclear why it wasn't a priority for governments. New York's failure at both the city and state level to create an easy, centralized appointment-booking system—ideally one that's accessible to seniors, who are currently eligible for vaccines and at the highest risk of dying from COVID-19—is yet another example of how central planners have screwed up every step of the way.
Of course, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio aren't the only ones royally flubbing the COVID response. Governors and mayors across the country are creating pandemic rules for the little people—ones they certainly couldn't be expected to follow themselves—and instituting new rounds of lockdowns while botching vaccine rollout and failing to collect data on just how many precious doses are being thrown away.
Nationally, it's been a harrowing struggle to attempt to reach herd immunity as new COVID variants circulate in the general population. If we do end up getting a significant-enough swath of the population vaccinated in a timely manner, it will be at least partially because private citizens like Huge Ma stepped up to the plate and delivered where government failed.