Edmonds woman co-founds website aimed at easing pain of finding COVID shots

When Edmonds resident Kirsten Andrews’ 75-year-old mom tried to sign up for her first COVID vaccination, she ran into the all-too-familiar brick wall of hopelessly complex (and often maxed out) websites, clogged phone lines that leave you on hold for hours (if you’re lucky enough to get past the busy signal), and, for the fortunate few who do get through, a labyrinth of complex signup procedures that lack any semblance of standardization across providers.

Laid off in September from her position as a social learning program coordinator for the Seattle-based Committee for Children – COVID had essentially shut down her program – Andrews had some time on her hands.  She jumped in to help her mom, hoping her experience as a former Microsoft employee would give her an edge.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” related Andrews. “It was just crazy.”

She first went to the Washington Department of Health website, where more than 300 possible locations were listed. “But every time I went to one the message said ‘full, try again,’ so I pushed the back button, which returned me to square one,” she added with a frustrated sigh.

“That evening I sat down and thought to myself that there must be a better way,” she explained. “There’s just gotta be people out there who can make a better website.”

Later that evening, she vented her frustrations in a post on her personal Facebook page, saying that with all the tech talent in Washington, someone should be able to come up with a centralized booking system that aggregates all available appointment on one page.

Coincidentally, at the exact same time, George Hu was trying to shepherd his 80-plus-year-old in-laws through the same swamp. Despite years of experience as a developer for Microsoft, Hu ran into the same brick wall as Andrews — and he also posted his frustrations on Facebook. Andrews found his post within hours of her own, and she immediately reached out to Hu.

The two exchanged ideas, which resulted in Hu contacting his former student and mentee Darren Lim, a sophomore at MIT. Lim jumped on board to volunteer, and at the same time both Hu and Lim reached out to their other contacts to see who else might be interested.  The response was enthusiastic.

“We started with a group of 10 volunteers,” explained Andrews, who has a background in communications and project management. “We had our first meeting [virtual] on Feb. 5, and immediately agreed on our shared vision:  Make finding and booking a COVID-19 vaccination in Washington state for each phase easier, less frustrating and less time-consuming.”

The obvious first question: “Why isn’t there an app for this? If Zillow can keep up-to-the-minute track of home values and market status coast to coast, and Fandango can connect ticket buyers with thousands of theaters showing the movies they want, it stands to reason that keeping track of a few hundred vaccination sites across the state couldn’t be that difficult.

And as it turns out, it wasn’t.

The group immediately got cracking on a web-based app that would do just that. Operating in the same way as sites that scour the internet to find cheap air fare and event tickets, the team developed a system of robotic screen scrapers that search in real time across Washington state vaccine websites for available appointments.

“What’s really incredible is that most of us have never met in person,” added Andrews.

And on Feb. 10, five days after the group’s first meeting, the Washington Vaccine Finder went live, pulling information from vaccine providers and aggregating it on a single webpage to show which sites have availability. Available vaccination appointments can be searched for and found as they come available. To make an appointment, the user selects the provider that has appointments available and is brought directly to the vaccine provider’s scheduling site.

In its first 14 days, the site averaged 1.3 million clicks with 160,000 unique users, and as word spread, utilization skyrocketed. Now in its fourth week, the site has collected a staggering 2 million-plus clicks.

But maintaining the site requires an army of dedicated volunteers.

“We are now a team of now over 100 volunteers growing from the original 10co-founders,” explained Andrews. “Many of our volunteers work full-time jobs and are working long hours, evenings and weekends to keep covidwa.com working for the community. This project is a shining example of people who are passionate and want to help the community.”

Kirsten Andrews takes a break from managing the Washington Vaccine Finder website to catch some air on her kiteboard.

As if this isn’t enough to keep her hopping, Andrews is also a passionate kiteboarder, and can often be seen flying over the Puget Sound waves at Edmonds’ Marina Beach.

“I got in when the sport was first developed in the late 1990s,” she said. “I was the first woman to take up the sport locally and have been doing it now for 20 years. The winds off Marina Beach are great in fall, winter and spring. It’s part of why I love living in Edmonds. I’m definitely an Edmonds kind of water girl!”

But after clearing her head with a healthy dose of salty air, Andrews throws herself right back into the effort to keep the Washington Vaccine Finder website current and useful.

New vaccination locations are being added daily – the web bots now scour 645 sites, up from the original 330 at the beginning of last month. Another focus is making more details available about vaccine dose and type. Presently the site does not distinguish the type of vaccine – Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson&Johnson – nor does it allow users to specify first or second dose. But these are being actively developed and according to Andrews should roll out soon.

In addition, a major immediate thrust is to reach out to underserved communities, people of color, and non-English speakers.

“We are working hard with some fantastic groups on getting the word out about our site via local community outreach groups,” Andrews explained. “We’re also looking into translation of materials to reach non-English speaking Washingtonians.”

Ready to book your vaccination appointment? Visit the Washington COVID Vaccine Finder web site at www.covidwa.com. For those who want a quick introduction on how to use the site, there is even a You Tube video guide that walks you through it.

— By Larry Vogel

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