Trying to Get a COVID-19 Vaccine? These New Tools May Help

Getting an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine can be a frustrating process, but several tech companies are working to change that. Johner Images/Getty Images

Tech companies like Facebook and Google have been promoting new tools to help…

Getting an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine can be a frustrating process, but several tech companies are working to change that. Johner Images/Getty Images
  • Tech companies like Facebook and Google have been promoting new tools to help connect users to vaccination appointments.
  • These tools can not only help people book appointments for a COVID-19 vaccine in their area, they also provide answers to common questions.
  • Some of these tools also include features that allow people to share they got vaccinated and encourage others to do the same.

As COVID-19 vaccinations become more accessible to people throughout the United States, what everyone wants to know is, how and where can you make an appointment?

Federal and local health departments have established vaccination sites, while major pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens have set up vaccine clinics in their branches nationwide.

The process of actually getting that vaccination appointment can be frustrating and less clear.

This is where technology steps in.

Tech giants like Facebook and Google have been promoting new tools to help connect users to vaccination appointments and important public health information around the vaccines.

How tech companies are connecting people to the vaccines

As of publication, nearly 38 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 23.6 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While those numbers look promising given the U.S. government's aggressive vaccination push in recent months, the need to get more people vaccinated is great.

Medical experts say that between 70 and 90 percent of the U.S. population needs to be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity.”

Given how ubiquitous technology is in our lives, tech companies have been developing ways their platforms could help feed this vaccination push and fill in some of these gaps that could potentially slow our progress to herd immunity.

In March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced several initiatives to connect people to needed vaccine resources.

One of the social media company's main programs is a partnership with Boston Children's Hospital to find places near you that are distributing the vaccine. This includes hours of operation, contact information, and links to make an appointment.

This “COVID-19 Information Center” hub on the site is supported in 71 languages with plans to gradually keep expanding globally as vaccines become more available. The vaccine tracker and the hub can be found right on your Facebook news feed.

Among the company's many initiatives are WhatsApp chatbots to help connect people to vaccine resources and answer real-time questions they may have.

The company has been working with local governments, nonprofit organizations, and community organizations on the ground to provide accurate information through this tool.

Instagram has also been a central focus for Facebook's COVID-19 initiatives. The popular photo-sharing app has its own information portal from local health bodies and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Posts containing anything on COVID-19 immediately are tagged with labels linking to verifiable information about the pandemic and vaccine information.

In April, Instagram also launched “profile frames” in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as well as the CDC, where people can share that they got vaccinated and encourage others to do so.

Similarly, users can share “I Got Vaccinated” Instagram Stories: All users who include a “I got vaccinated” sticker will see their Stories joined with others' on the app's main homepage.

When tapped, the stickers themselves can connect people to vaccine information.

“COVID-19 has sped up and deepened collaboration between health organizations, technology companies and governments. This is good thing. Technology companies leverage our reach to connect a lot of people with expert information, fast,” Kang-Xing Jin, Facebook's head of health, told Healthline in a statement.

“When we do this alongside health experts, we set the stage for better real-world health outcomes,” he said.

Jin added that people are more likely to get vaccinated if they see friends and family doing the same.

“The newly launched COVID-19 vaccine profile frames were developed in collaboration with the CDC and US Department of Health and Human Services and now people can easily show their support for the vaccine, and see others doing the same,” Jin said in the statement.

Facebook isn't the only major tech company getting involved. AT&T Technology announced in February that it would use its resources to aid in vaccine distribution.

The company has provided the network connectivity needed for shipping companies, tracking vaccines from production straight to the clinic.

The company's IoT (Internet of Things) solutions have also been applied to vaccine temperature and cold storage monitoring.

The phone provider has also been working with local health systems to manage the hundreds of calls they're receiving about vaccine appointments.

Another tech giant, Google, announced early on in the vaccine push that it was directing $150 million in resources to promote vaccine education, distribution, and connect people to information they need.

The company also said it would open some of its physical spaces to serve as vaccination sites when needed.

In a blog post, Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai wrote that the company was also making it easy to find vaccination sites on its popular search engine.

You can find state and regional vaccine distribution information right on the Google search page as well as a “Get the Facts” initiative through Google and YouTube that spreads vetted, authoritative information about the vaccines.

How helpful are these initiatives?

Whenever social media and “big tech” platforms are discussed as public health tools, experts say it's a mixed bag when it comes to how effective they are. Some initiatives are more useful than others.

Deborah Glik, ScD, professor in the department of community health sciences at the UCLA School of Public Health, said that a platform like Facebook can be a persuasive communication tool given that it is a media platform that's connected to a global network of users.

She said about 75 percent of people in the United States use it, which makes it very effective at reaching a wide range of people.

This is why so many wish to spread their message far and wide, and for good and ill — from politicians and marketers to social media influencers and conspiracy theorists.

“To use it effectively, the sender must segment the audience — in this case assume these are people at high risk of being vaccine hesitant — test and pretest what is being communicated, address that particular audience’s major issues and concerns, use spokespersons that this audience can relate to, and use the right persuasive techniques,” Glik told Healthline.

Tyler Wray, PhD, the Edens Family Chair in Healthcare Communications & Technology at the Brown University School of Public Health, echoed Glik in saying that social media and tech platforms are good at spreading awareness about a public health topic and directing people to needed resources.

However, can having more social content on Instagram about the vaccine really convince people who are vaccine hesitant?

“There isn't a lot of research yet on whether or not social media can change behavior,” said Wray, who also leads the Brown School of Public Health's academic programs in digital health and behavior.

“We have some good examples of individual studies that show that some social media intervention can change other related behavior, but not necessarily research highlighting vaccines. We don't really know,” he said.

Wray told Healthline that there isn't “great consistent evidence” about these kinds of social media campaigns.

They can be effective at “recruiting opinion leaders, or what we may now call influencers,” and getting them to get the word out there about a cause, like the COVID-19 vaccines.

He said one good example in recent years has been spreading information about pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), an effective treatment of medications that can prevent contracting HIV by about 99 percent, according to the CDC.

Wray said that during the advent of PrEP, efforts to recruit opinion leaders and influencers to spread awareness and spur adoption were effective.

He explained that raising awareness about a prescription medication is a different scenario than connecting people to resources as well as fighting against misinformation about a public health push for a mass vaccination program.

Both present different messaging challenges for the medical and public health community.

It's also difficult for some of these public health campaigns to be noticed in the great sea of a social media news feed.

A public health official is now competing with celebrities, political campaigns, online games, and pictures of your friend's birthday. How does public health information get noticed then?

“For any communication to get noticed and break through the clutter, a lot of work goes in at the front… just like any good article or marketing campaign or media feed,” Glik said.

“First, understand what the audience is concerned about. Then, pick a few main messages that address those concerns. Then, pick stories and people that audience can relate to communicate those ideas,” she said.

Glik said that, if possible, you should provide supporting evidence about why the health initiative is important.

“Citing sources that are credible is also a good practice. Using multiple platforms and knowing which ones the target audience uses is also key. That is why organized ‘campaigns’ are more effective than single communications,” Glik added.

Wray said that getting through all that social media noise is one of the biggest challenges in these public health efforts.

Nevertheless, Wray said the most effective influence is often a person's own friends and family.

People are more likely to trust and vet information their friends are sharing.

That's why sometimes the most effective social media campaign can be for these public health messages to organically filter down to the user.

For example, if your best friend or favorite aunt is sharing information about the COVID-19 vaccine on their social media profile, then you might be more likely to look into it yourself.

The threat of misinformation

Of course, trusting your friends rather than a public health expert brings about a different social media problem: misinformation.

One reason people might be skeptical about efforts from a social media company to use their platform for COVID-19 vaccine resources is the irony that many of those same platforms are the breeding ground for anti-vaccination sentiments.

We've seen it before with politics.

Controversial, unvetted opinions centered on conspiracies can spread like wildfire on social media and capture the public's attention. They can then undermine any sense of confidence in accurate information.

In 2020, the Pew Research Center reported that Americans who rely mainly on social media for their news — about 18 percent of U.S. adults — were more likely to believe false and misleading stories.

For its part, Facebook says it is combatting misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Zuckerberg announced the company worked with the WHO to expand on its previously designated “list of false claims” it will remove from posts on its platforms surrounding COVID-19 and the vaccines.

Besides removing content containing false information, the previously mentioned tags and labels on Facebook and Instagram posts aim to immediately direct people to accurate information about vaccines and the pandemic at large.

Glik said that the main tool we all have at our disposal to combat misinformation and disinformation — separate from these tech companies removing this content themselves — is to “espouse accurate and up-to-date content all the time.”

She said public health experts and vetted resources need to use persuasive techniques, credible spokespeople, and consistent messaging.

Glik explained that this includes positive, simple messages, such as “showing people who are being vaccinated surviving just fine.”

“The media does a disservice by constantly showing people who are not getting the vaccine when in fact the large majority of people are or will be getting immunized, just as the large majority of Americans have been compliant with masking and social distancing guidelines, helping to end the pandemic,” Glik added.

Wray said that a lot of these platforms have been instituting fact-checking initiatives and better methods for screening and removing this damaging, misleading content.

But the problem persists. Bad actors still find ways to peddle disinformation.

Wray said some of these companies find themselves in the quandary of reducing public trust in information if they keep seeing items with a “false” tag appearing over and over again on these platforms.

It's something of a paradox — trying to ensure people get the information they need while maintaining trust in information in and of itself.

Amplifying the right messages in the fight against COVID-19

Despite the pitfalls of technology, it can be a useful tool to connect people to needed resources, like the COVID-19 vaccines.

“Social media is a platform, albeit a very effective one, to amplify messages if they resonate with the audience,” Glik said.

She explained this is why misinformation and disinformation can also spread easily, especially when national leaders are cheering on those messages.

However, when facing these roadblocks, she said there is hope as well.

“There is no reason why the opposite set of messages from health and public health — about why getting the vaccine is safe and getting vaccinated is the ‘patriotic or the right thing' to do to protect families and communities and end the pandemic — cannot be just as effective,” she asserted.

“Again, different audiences use different media and platforms, and effective messages that are communicated over multiple channels are more likely to be effective,” Glik said.