In the midst of a disorganized, decentralized, and disappointing coronavirus vaccine rollout in the United States, some states and counties are turning to unlikely tools to get their allotted vaccines out to as many people as possible. In many Florida counties, for instance, Eventbrite has become the only way to sign up for the vaccine.
As it has done with pretty much every aspect of this pandemic, the federal government is largely leaving it to individual states to figure out how to distribute vaccines. Each state has had to come up with its own protocol and priority list. And despite having months to prepare for the tremendous undertaking, many health departments still scrambled to figure out some kind of system — seemingly at the last minute — when it came to making sure that people who are eligible for the vaccines can make appointments to get them.
Unlike many states that are only giving vaccines to people who work in high-risk professions, Florida allows anyone age 65 and older to get a vaccine, due to a last-minute executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has left the actual logistics of distributing those vaccines to counties and local health systems.
“These guys are much more competent to be able to deliver health care services than a state government could ever be,” DeSantis told a CNN reporter on Monday.
With millions of suddenly eligible recipients and no statewide distribution plan, county health departments in Florida had to find a way to get as many people signed up as quickly as possible. Enter Eventbrite.
Florida’s Brevard County planned to use phone lines for appointments, but the phone system didn’t work, according to The Verge. The “only option,” the county told The Verge, was Eventbrite, a site best known for offering tickets to shows and concerts. Several other Florida counties, including Manatee, Nassau, Collier, Sarasota, Flagler, and Pasco, have decided to do the same.
While quickly distributing vaccines to people on the priority list is certainly a good thing, there are some issues here. Fake Eventbrite sites that charge people to make nonexistent appointments have apparently popped up. And relying solely on Eventbrite means people who don’t have access to or know how to use the internet won’t be able to sign up to be vaccinated.
Then again, other Florida counties simply decided to give out vaccines on a first-come, first-served basis, which has led to stories of seniors camping out overnight in hours-long lines to get their shots. Hillsborough and Pinellas counties rolled out their own vaccine registration websites on Monday, which promptly crashed along with their phone scheduling services. Compared to those options, maybe Eventbrite doesn’t seem so bad.
“We are actively exploring how our platform can best support the effort to increase access to vaccines,” an Eventbrite spokesperson said in a statement to Recode. “We recommend anyone registering for any COVID-19-related event verify and direct questions to their local health service officials.”
Eventbrite later added that it had investigated the fake vaccine events and believed they were created accidentally and not “for the purpose of malice.”
“We recognize this has caused confusion and are continuing to monitor and take action to remove these listings,” the company said.
Eventbrite didn’t respond to request for information on how it will handle any personal health data provided by people who sign up for vaccine slots on its service. The Florida Department of Health has not responded to Recode’s request for comment about whether it recommends that counties rely on Eventbrite for vaccine sign-ups.
Florida isn’t alone in its approach. Other health departments and facilities across the country have also turned to tech companies to assist in vaccine distribution. Louisiana’s Department of Public Health offers a list of pharmacies with available Covid-19 vaccines in a document on its website that simply links out to some pharmacies’ Facebook pages. New Jersey’s Ocean Health Initiatives (OHI) has taken to creating Facebook events to advertise its vaccination distribution events, although eligible recipients must register on OHI’s website (not on Facebook). California’s Stanford Medicine made an algorithm to determine which of its workers should get the vaccine first, only for most of its residents and fellows to be left off the list while administrators and people who work from home got a spot on it. And New York state’s ParCare Community Health Network had patients sign up for vaccine slots via a Google form (ParCare is currently being investigated for vaccine fraud, but that’s not related to its use of Google forms).
The vaccine distribution situation mirrors other occasions during the pandemic where technology companies have been tapped to do the work that could have been done by public health systems. The US Department of Health and Human Services enlisted Palantir to create a brand new system for tracking health data and TeleTracking, a software company, to run it. Meanwhile, many states used Apple and Google’s exposure notification tool to power digital contact tracing apps. The federal government declined to use the tool for a nationwide app.
With this patchwork of vaccine distribution policies and practices, vaccination rates have varied wildly across the country, and no state has done things particularly well. The federal government had hoped to administer the first dose of the vaccine to 20 million people by the end of 2020 — a goal it did not come close to meeting. The Washington Post reports that, out of the 15.4 million doses that have been distributed, only 4.6 million people had received their first vaccination shots as of Monday night.
Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, wrote in the Washington Post that any delays in vaccine distribution meant that people could get sick or die who otherwise would have been protected. He laid the blame on the federal government’s decision to simply supply vaccines to the states without providing the necessary resources to ensure their distribution. This left “these relatively poorly funded agencies” that were already “squeezed and stretched” from the previous nine months to once again figure out some kind of solution for themselves.
No surprise, then, that the initial vaccine rollout didn’t go as smoothly as planned in Florida or elsewhere in the US. Nor is it a surprise that some Florida counties used Eventbrite to schedule inoculations. Even a hastily deployed third-party event platform with potential for fraud and misuse is arguably better than nothing at all. But many would agree that it shouldn’t have come to this in the first place.