With every state left to manage its own distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, public health agencies across the country are taking individual approaches to rolling out the injections.
But in states where vaccinations are even further decentralized, like Florida, some counties are resorting to online ticketing sites like Eventbrite to schedule jabs for their front-line medical workers and elderly residents, sparking concerns that some of the people most at risk of contracting COVID-19 could be cut out of the process. It could also result in people more adept at navigating those sites gobbling up all the appointments within minutes, not unlike concert tickets.
“You have the same problem getting tickets to vaccinations as you do to a hot show,” said Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “People who don’t use computers very well” — including seniors and residents of low-income neighborhoods — “these are the most vulnerable populations.”
Neither Eventbrite or the Florida Department of Health responded to requests for comment, but at least eight Florida counties have been booking appointments through the popular ticketing platform since the first coronavirus vaccines were distributed in December. In the case of Brevard County, east of Orlando, health officials turned to Eventbrite last week after a phone line was overwhelmed.
Florida is currently making available to health workers and people over 65. The move to Eventbrite appears to have helped Brevard officials schedule appointments more quickly: The county’s vaccine clinic is booked solid through Jan. 29. People must show health officials their confirmations from Eventbrite when they show up. For now, though, Eventbrite links are the only way to get the shot in the county, potentially cutting out the 13% of households that lack broadband internet subscriptions, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Sites like Eventbrite also open a risk that clever internet users could swallow up an entire allotment of vaccine slots and scalp them on a gray market. While there’s no evidence that’s happened, Galperin said it is not hard to find or develop tools to manipulate a ticket website.
“It sure as hell happened with concert ticket sales,” she said. “It’s not hard to build if you are tech savvy.”
Florida is not alone in turning to popular event management websites for their vaccine distributions. Individual counties in Oklahoma are using SignupGenius, a tool for organizing events and recruiting volunteers, to schedule appointments.
But other states are taking more centralized approaches to the vaccination process, including the use of web forms to collect residents’ interest in getting a COVID-19 shot, so that they can be contacted later as they become more widely available. Some states’ forms use commercially available software, while others appear to be built in-house.
New Jersey’s vaccine information site was produced by the state’s Office of Innovation with an assist from Yext, a cloud software company that has previously contributed to the state’s coronavirus response. The state health departments in New Mexico, Arizona and the District of Columbia are also among those using custom-built sites. New York City and Georgia’s regional health districts are using customized SurveyMonkey forms to collect people’s information for the vaccination process. Still others are using a template designed by the U.S. Digital Response, a team of nonprofit volunteer civic technologists.
While these more organized efforts are preferable to waiting for people to pounce on an Eventbrite link, the disparate approaches between states, Galperin said, are another reminder of how disorderly the United States’ pandemic response has been.
“We have known since the pandemic hit there would be a vaccine we’d have to distribute quickly,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of time to figure this out.”
The Florida Department of Management Services, which includes the Florida Digital Service, which is tasked with designing public-facing technology solutions for the Sunshine State, did not answer questions about why it has not set up a statewide vaccine distribution site.