In the early stages of a global push to distribute the coronavirus vaccine to those who need it most — a process that has, so far, managed to be both hectic and slow — some health officials have turned to an unexpected tool: the ticketing website Eventbrite.
Before the pandemic, the platform was a place to book tickets to performances, art shows or pub crawls. Now, public health officials are using it to schedule vaccination appointments.
Mai Miller, 48, of Merritt Island, Fla., scoured Eventbrite last week in search of a slot for her mother. She scrolled through pages of dates and times, repeatedly refreshing the site and hunting for booking buttons that were blue, signaling availability.
She found a few, but she couldn’t seem to click on them quickly enough. “It was just a scramble,” she said. “Like musical chairs with 20 chairs and 4,000 people.”
Ms. Miller didn’t find an appointment, but others have had some luck. Eventbrite has been used to schedule vaccinations in several counties in Florida, Vice reported, and mentions of Eventbrite vaccination tickets have popped up in other places, too — like the websites for Sevier County, Tenn., and the city of Allen, Texas.
Even health care providers in Britain have been using the platform.
This has raised concerns about accessibility: Not everyone has internet access or knows how to use Eventbrite. Those who do will have more luck if they can get online at the right time — whenever a batch of tickets becomes available — which could disadvantage people with slower connections or essential workers who have to maneuver around scheduled shifts.
And scams have already been reported. The health department of Pinellas County, Fla., warned that appointments made through a “fraudulent Eventbrite site” were not valid, and The Tampa Bay Times reported that Eventbrite had been used to charge people money for vaccination slots that turned out to be bogus.
These glitches are part of a much larger problem: Coronavirus vaccine distribution in the United States and elsewhere is an unprecedented project with vast operational challenges.
“It’s stressful for my people,” said Greg Foster, the director of emergency management for Nassau County, Fla., who is working with health department officials to administer the vaccine. “We’re getting a lot of irate people contacting us because they can’t get the vaccine, and I understand why they’re upset.”
Eventbrite, he said, has been a useful tool because the county’s own websites and phone lines did not have the bandwidth to handle the demand — to say nothing of the limited supply. “We have tens of thousands of people that are trying to get 850 vaccines,” Mr. Foster said.
In Brevard County, Fla., health department officials have been administering hundreds of doses a day. “Our staff, augmented by an incident management strike team consisting of National Guardsmen and paramedics, is amazing,” said Anita Stremmel, the assistant county health department director.
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Answers to Your Vaccine Questions
If I live in the U.S., when can I get the vaccine?
While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary by state, most will likely put medical workers and residents of long-term care facilities first. If you want to understand how this decision is getting made, this article will help.
When can I return to normal life after being vaccinated?
Life will return to normal only when society as a whole gains enough protection against the coronavirus. Once countries authorize a vaccine, they’ll only be able to vaccinate a few percent of their citizens at most in the first couple months. The unvaccinated majority will still remain vulnerable to getting infected. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines are showing robust protection against becoming sick. But it’s also possible for people to spread the virus without even knowing they’re infected because they experience only mild symptoms or none at all. Scientists don’t yet know if the vaccines also block the transmission of the coronavirus. So for the time being, even vaccinated people will need to wear masks, avoid indoor crowds, and so on. Once enough people get vaccinated, it will become very difficult for the coronavirus to find vulnerable people to infect. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve that goal, life might start approaching something like normal by the fall 2021.
If I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask?
Yes, but not forever. The two vaccines that will potentially get authorized this month clearly protect people from getting sick with Covid-19. But the clinical trials that delivered these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected by the coronavirus can spread it while they’re not experiencing any cough or other symptoms. Researchers will be intensely studying this question as the vaccines roll out. In the meantime, even vaccinated people will need to think of themselves as possible spreaders.
Will it hurt? What are the side effects?
The Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is delivered as a shot in the arm, like other typical vaccines. The injection won’t be any different from ones you’ve gotten before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported any serious health problems. But some of them have felt short-lived discomfort, including aches and flu-like symptoms that typically last a day. It’s possible that people may need to plan to take a day off work or school after the second shot. While these experiences aren’t pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system encountering the vaccine and mounting a potent response that will provide long-lasting immunity.
Will mRNA vaccines change my genes?
No. The vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer use a genetic molecule to prime the immune system. That molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse to a cell, allowing the molecule to slip in. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus, which can stimulate the immune system. At any moment, each of our cells may contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules, which they produce in order to make proteins of their own. Once those proteins are made, our cells then shred the mRNA with special enzymes. The mRNA molecules our cells make can only survive a matter of minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell’s enzymes a bit longer, so that the cells can make extra virus proteins and prompt a stronger immune response. But the mRNA can only last for a few days at most before they are destroyed.
But the logistics have not been easy. “Initial efforts to schedule appointments by phone led to phone outages and dropped lines,” she said — so when officials there saw other counties using Eventbrite, they decided to follow suit.
To avoid scams, Ms. Stremmel said, people should access the Eventbrite page only through the health department’s website.
Ms. Miller, who lives in Brevard County, said someone texted her a link to the Eventbrite vaccination bookings last week. “My first reaction was, this does not look legit,” she said.
But she was determined to help her mother, Chut Agger, 68, get an appointment. A visit to the county website confirmed that the Eventbrite link was real, so Ms. Miller tried her luck. She knew the platform because she had used it before — to buy concert tickets — but she still couldn’t secure a spot.
“I couldn’t imagine my mother, who is not at all tech savvy, trying to make the appointment herself,” Ms. Miller said.
Ms. Agger agreed that she was not skilled in the art of Eventbrite bookings. Her preferred medium was the telephone. Before her daughter tried getting an appointment online, Ms. Agger spent hours calling the county health department for an appointment. She used two phones at once and hit the redial button hundreds of times. She never got through to a human being.
Ms. Agger recalled news reports that showed other Floridians lining up outside for hours to claim vaccinations that were being administered on a first-come, first-served basis. “All the elderly people lining up and sitting there overnight — that’s just not right,” she said. She has no plans to try that tactic herself.
“No,” she said. “I’ll just wait.”
In a statement, Eventbrite, calling itself a “self-service ticketing and experience platform,” said that anyone who used the platform to register for events related to the coronavirus should direct their questions to local health officials.
“We are actively exploring how our platform can best support the effort to increase access to vaccines,” it said.
The company did not answer questions about protecting the privacy of people who booked vaccination appointments on the platform.
Using Eventbrite to process protected medical information could violate privacy regulations under America’s Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, said Kayte Spector-Bagdady, an associate director at the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan.
But she emphasized that local officials appeared to be using the tools at their disposal to get the vaccine to as many people as possible, adding that they would have been helped by better planning and coordination from state and federal officials.
“Now individual counties and institutions are really left to catch as catch can — to try and vaccinate the population in fair ways while trying to get more product from the feds to the states, and then use all the product they have,” Professor Spector-Bagdady said. “It’s extraordinarily complex, so I have nothing but sympathy for these health care workers, who are scrambling to get shots into arms.”
For now, it appears that regulators will not get in their way. The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services is “not interested in imposing HIPAA penalties on providers that are doing the best they can to quickly vaccinate people,” said its director, Roger Severino.
Ms. Miller said she was not especially concerned about privacy when she used Eventbrite to find a vaccination appointment for Ms. Agger. Her main focus, she said, was keeping her mother safe from Covid-19.
“Now there’s this vaccine, and it seems almost unattainable,” she said. “It’s there, but we can’t get to it. There has to be a better way.”