Some Turn to Internet ‘Bots’ to Help Get Vaccine Appointments

    03 March 2021

    Many Americans have had trouble getting appointments to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The process for getting vaccinated is different across U.S. states and communities.

    Some older people who lack technology experience have found it difficult to follow the necessary requirements to seek appointments through the internet. To get around this, some people have turned to internet "bots" to help them find a quicker way to get vaccines.

    What is a bot?

    A bot is a computer program that works automatically to search for different kinds of information on the internet.

    People seeking vaccinations often have to search several different vaccine provider websites for available appointments. With the demand for vaccines continuing to outweigh supply, people often have to keep checking sites over and over to find an available time. Sometimes the availabilities can disappear before a person has the chance to complete the appointment process.

    Motorists line up to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at a Los Angeles County location at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles ,Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP)
    Motorists line up to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at a Los Angeles County location at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles ,Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. (AP)

    How do vaccine bots work?

    Bots can be used to continuously search provider sites for the latest availabilities. The bots are often overseen by humans, who can then publicize information about the openings on Twitter or through text messages.

    A second kind of bot that is more worrisome to health officials is called a "scalper" bot. This kind of bot can automatically book appointments immediately when it finds them. Sometimes these appointments can be offered up for sale. So far, though, there is little evidence that scalper bots are making appointments.

    Are vaccine bots helping?

    Vaccine bots are helping some of the people who use them. Benjamin Shover of Stratford, New Jersey, used a bot system to help get his 70-year-old father a vaccine appointment for early March.

    Shover learned of the availability from a message on Twitter. "THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I GOT MY DAD AN APPOINTMENT! THANK YOU SO MUCH!" he tweeted. The success, through the Twitter account @nj_vaccine, came a month after he registered for New Jersey's official online appointment system.

    Shover said his father has limited technical skills and is also physically disabled, making it difficult for him to find an appointment himself online.

    The developer of the bot, software engineer Kenneth Hsu, said he first created it to help get an appointment for his wife's parents. Now he and other volunteers are using the bot to assist others who are frustrated by New Jersey's online appointment system.

    "These are people who just want to know they're on a list somewhere and they are going to be helped," Hsu said. "We want everyone vaccinated. We want to see our grandparents."

    What do health officials think?

    Health officials in some communities have opposed the use of such bots. One bot that recently identified availabilities at a provider in a rural area of Massachusetts led many people who live in the Boston area to register for the spots.

    Local officials chose to cancel all of the appointments. They changed to a private system and started spreading news about availabilities through officials and community centers.

    "Our goal was to help our residents get their vaccination," said Tracy Rogers, the head of emergency preparedness for the local Massachusetts government. "But 95 percent of the appointments we had were from outside (the area)."

    One area of New Jersey added a website tool designed to confirm that visitors are human. Officials there said the tool was aimed at blocking efforts "to game" the system with a bot.

    Noah Marcus created a vaccine bot that is now blocked in New Jersey. The 24-year-old computer programmer says the official appointment system is not fair. He said, "The system was already favoring the tech-savvy and the person who can just sit in front of their computer all day, hitting refresh."

    I'm Bryan Lynn.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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    Words in This Story

    appointment n. a time set to meet someone or go somewhere

    automaticadj. something controlled using machines and not people

    frustrate v. make someone feel annoyed because things are not happening the way they want

    resident n. someone who lives in a particular place

    savvyadj. having practical knowledge and abilities relating to certain subjects

    refreshv. to make the most recent information on an internet website appear