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Having Trouble Getting a COVID-19 Vaccine? This Standby Site Wants to Help

6 minute read

Here in the U.S., the COVID-19 vaccination picture looks far rosier than it did even a few weeks ago. Nearly one in five Americans have received at least one dose, according to TIME’s vaccine tracker, the authorization of Johnson & Johnson’s shot brings a third vaccine onto the public health battlefield, and President Joe Biden recently moved up his vaccination timetable, saying on March 2 that the U.S. will have enough doses to cover all American adults by the end of May.

Yet spend any amount of time in one of the many ad-hoc Facebook groups where volunteers are helping eligible vaccine recipients book appointments, and it becomes clear that actually getting a shot remains a challenge for many—especially people who are less tech-savvy, less connected, or simply less able to spend hours on end refreshing websites in the hunt for a slot. Meanwhile, no-shows are a problem for vaccine providers: if somebody books a vaccine appointment but doesn’t show up—perhaps because they booked multiple appointments and forgot to cancel their extras—a dose could go to waste (since all doses in a vial must be administered within a certain amount of time after the vial is punctured), or at least be given to someone who doesn’t yet qualify.

Dr. B, an online vaccine standby list that quietly launched in January, aims to help solve both problems. Users enter their name, contact information and other details related to their vaccination priority ranking, like their occupation and medical risk factors. If a vaccine provider partnering with Dr. B has an extra dose, the platform sends a text message to nearby users based on their prioritization as set by their state or other jurisdiction. Users then have a limited window of time to claim that dose and get to the provider for their shot.

“We thought there needed to be a nationwide standby system where any vaccine provider who has excess doses indicates how many vaccines are available, and immediately it goes out to the appropriately-prioritized people based on local government priority criteria,” says Dr. B founder Cyrus Massoumi, a technology executive and investor best known as the founder and former CEO of medical appointment-booking site Zocdoc. Massoumi says he’s self-funding Dr. B, which is free for both vaccine recipients and providers.

At the moment, demand for Dr. B’s offering is clearly outstripping supply. More than half a million people have signed up for the service, but only two pilot providers are currently on board: one in New York and another in Arkansas. However, Massoumi says more than 200 other providers across 30 states have expressed interest. “They range everywhere from individual pharmacies in rural settings to homeless shelters, academic medical centers, you name it—it’s a pretty representative set of who’s actually giving the vaccine,” says Massoumi, though he declined to say how many people have been vaccinated so far via Dr. B. “It’s still early innings…we’re just trying to get every site up and running as quickly as we can.” While vaccination sites often have their own manually-run standby lists, there are obvious advantages to having a more universal tool, with more automated processes—Massoumi’s team is working on a way to occasionally ask registrants if they have already gotten their shot through other means, so they can trim the list and improve efficiency, for instance.

While Dr. B—named for Massoumi’s maternal grandfather, a physician nicknamed “Dr. Bubba,” who tended to patients during the Spanish Flu—began accepting sign-ups in late January, the company has avoided the media spotlight until now. That was a purposeful decision meant to ensure that people from demographic groups who are getting left behind in the vaccination process would have a chance to sign up first; his team worked with dozens of community leaders from “all walks of life” to get underserved people on board earlier on, Massoumi says. “There was a potential, if talked about in certain media circles, for the patient population to not be representative of the most vulnerable communities, and we wanted everyone to be on this platform,” he says. As news of Dr. B has spread by word of mouth, Massoumi and his team are now inviting mainstream attention for the first time in a bigger way, including through interviews like this one.

Any company gathering the personal and health information of hundreds of thousands of Americans is worth a dose of healthy skepticism, of course. While Dr. B is not governed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, its website promises to “treat the personal information you provide as if we were a covered entity.” Dr. B uses “bank-level encryption,” Massoumi says, adding that the “vast majority” of its engineering team has experience working with health data at companies like ZocDoc, IBM or Haven (a defunct Amazon-Berkshire Hathaway-JPMorgan health care effort). The company’s privacy policy promises that it won’t “share, sell, or otherwise disclose” user data except in a limited number of cases, including mergers and acquisitions—though in such a scenario, “all of Dr. B’s legal obligations to safeguard user data would apply equally to its successor,” a spokesperson says. “Bottom line: we do not sell our users’ personal information to anyone, ever,” the spokesperson adds.

As the U.S. vaccination rollout accelerates, more people become eligible for the shot and it (hopefully) becomes easier to get, the vast majority of Americans will probably wind up getting their vaccinations through more traditional means. But given that any wasted dose is a tragedy—a potential life saved, thrown in the trash—solutions like Mr. B may play at least a small role in making the process a little more efficient, and a little more fair. “Our mission is both to increase the efficiency of health care, specifically the COVID vaccine, but also the equity of it,” says Massoumi.

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