Rural communities are pushing back against vaccine-scheduling bots they say are giving out-of-towners an upper hand
- Vaccine-scheduling bots intended to make registration easier on seniors are facing backlash.
- A clinic in rural Massachusetts was canceled after 350 shots were reserved by out-of-towners.
- As of Feb. 26, more than 70 million people received COVID-19 vaccine shots in the US, the CDC said.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
On February 19, health officials in Franklin County, Massachusetts, learned they’d be receiving 350 new doses of COVID-19 vaccine to make available to their residents at a local clinic.
But less than 10 minutes after the scheduling link was posted to the state website, all of the appointments were scooped up — 95 percent of them by out-of towners, Emergency Preparedness Program Manager Tracy Rogers told Insider.
“Most of them were all gone at the same time, so we knew it was not a human being that could be doing it that quickly,” she said. “Then we found out that there is both a Twitter hashtag and a website that people can go to and sign up and the bot will just scour the state website all day long signing them up.”
Bots, autonomous internet tools designed to perform specific functions, have started to pop up in an effort to help Americans find and schedule vaccine appointments. But when online vaccine registrations rolled out, some people were left frustrated because appointment slots would disappear while patients, usually seniors who were among the first wave of people who could be vaccinated, were in the middle of trying to sign up.
Registration systems around the US have been challenging, especially to those who are less tech-savvy.
People trying to fix a broken system, have started to develop bots to make it easier to schedule appointments.
Some of the new bots are built to scan vaccine websites to determine when a clinic is adding new appointments, and then alerting the human overseeing them to post an alert online, the Associated Press reported.
Others are “scalper” bots that automatically book appointments, according to the AP.
While the bots might be well-intended, the downside is that they might not be sophisticated enough to factor in local regulations.
In Franklin County, a community of just over 70,000 residents, this week’s clinic was intended to be limited to locals.
It was expected that some portion of the appointments would be made by people living outside of the county, but in this case, almost no Franklin residents had the opportunity to register.
“It’s a wonderful service. It’s a great thing,” Rogers said of developers building bots to help seniors sign up. “But the bot doesn’t read where we said this was restricted to Franklin County residents only.”
Many people who signed up for the Western Massachusetts clinic were from the Boston-metro area.
Others who signed up for clinics in Franklin and the neighboring Western Massachusetts community of Berkshire County were driving more than three hours from Cape Cod for the shots.
As of February 26, more than 70 million people have received COVID-19 vaccine shots in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rogers said officials in Franklin County were able to meet with state legislators to get permission to cancel all 350 appointments and then reschedule the clinic, making it “private.”
Doing so means the new clinic’s registration link would not be available on the state’s website.
Details were instead distributed to local seniors’ centers, the Council on Aging, and other groups so they could assist with signups. Within two hours of reposting the new link, all of the appointments were rescheduled by local residents and people in nearby rural Massachusetts communities.
Rogers told Insider the problem has been fixed for now, but she’s not sure how long the state will give the county permission to keep vaccine clinics private.
Some eastern Massachusetts residents who were allowed to keep their appointments never showed up.
“The found out they got in at Gillette Stadium and they never called us to cancel,” Rogers said.
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