Staying Safe on COVID Vaccination Sites


CDC: Vaccine Finder: https://vaccinefinder.org/

The main thing nagging at my brain after my previous post about COVID vaccines (“Looking at … COVID Vaccine Black Markets & the Role of Tech“) has been the idea that some of the sites for finding vaccines are phishing sites that harvest personal information for identity theft. I had thought that mentioning this in the original post, and including a link to the CDC’s Vaccine Finder website would be sufficient for me to mention. I’ve gotten some feedback to the effect that, no, people simply do not want to believe that this is an issue, and no we don’t need to talk about it. As a librarian, a big part of what we do (and what I do) day in and day out is related to assessing quality of information, and helping folk learn how to do this better themselves. This makes a great example to walk through some of that process. What I hope to do in the rest of this post is break this out in three parts: 1) more explicitly break out why you should be careful on COVID vaccine finder sites; 2) give an example of assessing the safety of a site; and 3) point to just a few examples of good sites for finding COVID vaccine information and appointments.

Are COVID Vaccine Sites Risky?

For me, I’ve seen enough online misinformation that I just tend to err on the side of assuming sites I don’t already know and trust can’t be trusted until proven safe. That’s kind of my general approach to looking for information online. For myself and my family, we get vaccines, and there is a big difference between being worried about COVID vaccines themselves and being worried about the websites where people go to find appointments for their vaccines. While I want other people to also get vaccines, I don’t want people to have anything bad happen while they are trying to get their vaccine. Here are some of the warning messages about the potential risks of COVID vaccine sites that made me think I wanted to be careful while making my appointment.

Telling the Good Sites from the Maybes

This doesn’t apply just to COVID Vaccine information and appointment sites, but are basic skills to apply to anything you look at online or offline. As Mark Twain so famously said, “Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.” There are dozens of tools to help people remember how to assess information quality. One of the most famous and popular (and memorable) ones is CRAAP (2010), from Sarah Blakeslee and friends at CSU-Chico.

  • C = Currency
  • R = Relevance
  • A = Authority
  • A = Accuracy
  • P = Purpose

This is short and sweet, unlike the one I came up with many years ago: CHAIN of TRUST (2006), when I tried to simplify the really, REALLY complicated one in my book (1998-2004).

  • C = Candor
  • H = Honesty
  • A = Accountability
  • I = Information Quality
  • N = Neighborly
  • of
  • T = Timeliness
  • R = Relevant
  • U = Unbiased
  • S = Scope
  • T = Trustworthy

You might get the idea that librarians have been working on this a long time. I certainly wasn’t the first, and learned a lot about assessing information quality from tools developed for print materials before the Internet even existed.

So let’s take a look at a vaccine finding site with these ideas and principles in mind. This is not a tutorial applying either of these tools (many of those exist), because this is going to be even shorter. This is where I start these days when I’m trying to decide if I trust a website: Who, Why, What, Where, When, How. Those probably look familiar, since many of us learned this set of questions in a school lesson on journalism or storytelling, and a good website should do a good job about telling their own story. But usually I can weed a site out or decide I’m suspicious about them with just the first three.

  • WHO made the site, and is it easy to figure out.
  • WHY did they make the site, and are they up front and honest about their goals.
  • WHAT does the site actually provide, is it provided legally, is it what I want, and is it provided in the way I want it.

The COVID Vaccine finding tool that I’ve been recommending the most is the one from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): VaccineFinder.org. A screenshot of the top of their main page is at the head of this blogpost.

Screenshot of text: "We want to make vaccination easy and accessible to everyone.
VaccineFinder is a free service where users can search for locations that offer vaccinations. We work with partners such as clinics, pharmacies and health departments to provide accurate and up-to-date information about vaccination services. VaccineFinder is operated by epidemiologists and software developers at Boston Children’s Hospital and supported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Digital Service."

If you scroll down from the main page for Vaccine Finder they do a wonderful job of answering my most important questions. Who are they? They are epidemiologists and software developers from Boston Children’s Hospital working in collaboration with and funded by the CDC. They also partner with “clinics, pharmacies, and health departments to provide accurate and up-to-date information about vaccination services.” Then they have a “Contact Us” button so you can ask more questions, as well as listing other partners such as Harvard and Castlight Health on a logo banner. Given that this is funded and sponsored by our government, and developed and designed by a collaboration of reputable organizations, I would trust this site, as long as it actually does what it says it does, which it does.

Vaccine Finder: Search Results for Ann Arbor area.

What Vaccine Finder shows me when I search for vaccine appointments in my area is a list of all the places that are providing vaccines to the public and whether or not they currently have vaccine in stock. Note that bit about available to the public, because I actually received my vaccine through the clinics for my insurance, and they are not listed because they aren’t open to the public, only to people with that insurance. The site did list 50 different locations from several different pharmacy and grocery chains as well as small businesses with only a single location. The large map for the state appeared on the main page, but after I searched for a specific zipcode it switched to a more detailed map. Note that Vaccine Finder doesn’t require that you be at the location you want, so you could search for vaccines in a different state, perhaps where a friend or loved one lives. It allowed me to customize based on which vaccines I was interested in. It also allowed me to specify how far I want to drive. To make the appointment, I would have to click through to the location’s web site or phone to make an appointment. The Vaccine Finder site does not make the appointment for you. Vaccine Finder does not have an app for mobile devices, but instead designed a site that is mobile friendly and can be used on any kind of smartphone or tablet.

Let’s compare that with another site that is really popular among my friends and relatives, Find-a-Shot.

Screenshot shows Michigan Find-a-Shot page, with map showing dots for location, and a text-based list of locations in Lansing and Jackson.
Find-a-Shot: https://www.findashot.org/appointments/us/MI

Find-a-Shot automatically figures out where you are, and pushes you to the webpage on their site that matches your location. For some people, that makes things easier, for others it makes them worry about privacy issues. It allows you to search for location by zipcode or state as well as it identifying your location. Find-Shot mentioned on their page that some vaccine providers have blocked them from retrieving information about vaccine availability, and that they are negotiating with those companies to try to restore access to the information. They list six pharmacy and grocery chains they are working with for information (CVS, Kroger, Meijer, Rite Aid, Walgreens, Walmart), but no matter what I did in the site I was only able to retrieve vaccine location information from Rite-Aid, unless I clicked directly on the green dots on the map. The map is identical to the one from the Vaccine Finder website, but did not appear to allow the more precise map for a specific location, at least not easily. It didn’t say whether or not they have vaccine available, but whether they have appointments available, and again pushes you to the provider website for scheduling. Find-a-Shot does come right out and say they don’t keep any information on people who use the site, which is a comfort.

“Findashot.org collects no personal information about users of this site. We use Google Analytics to understand aggregate traffic patterns. Your location is only used with your permission to search for locations close to you and to show the distance to listed locations.”

So, there are some significant functional and interface differences between the two sites, but can I answer my two main questions for Find-a-Shot, what and why? Sort of. Find-a-Shot is a crowdsourced site run by volunteers, which means that officially the information comes from people all over, rather than a specific team or organization or individual. That said, it does ask you to buy a coffee for the person behind the coding for the site, who is not named but evidently was in Texas at the time. They have a banner of logos, but instead of the logos showing their organizational partners, it shows news sources that have mentioned them in an article. If you read the articles, some of them mention the person behind the site. They do list Find-a-Shot’s partners in text: GetMyVaccine.org and VaccineSpotter.org. GetMyVaccine is another crowdsourced list of vaccine appointment locations from major pharmacy and grocery chains in different states. It does not provide any information about the people behind it, but if you dig deep enough you can find a tutorial video from Erick Katzenstein. I haven’t watched the video, but it looks like he is probably the person behind the website. Vaccine Spotter doesn’t appear to be crowdsourced, instead listing the companies from which it scrapes the information. Vaccine Spotter does something else nice — they’ve put the code for the site in GitHub and made the project open source. And while they don’t say who they are on the site, they do list a personal Twitter address for Nick Muerdter, which means its a little easier to find a person. So, for all three sites associated with Find-a-Shot, they give the impression of being well intentioned folk, but it is a lot more work to make that decision. I would still say this is a site that is okay to use, it’s just a lot harder to answer those little questions like who is doing this and why are they doing it.

I didn’t go looking for a vaccine finder site that is overtly bad. You know why? Because I’m on a work computer, and I don’t want to risk going to a site that isn’t trustworthy. Some of them do the phishing by asking you to fill in a form or answer questions, but some of them could possibly gather information from your computer without you having to know it’s happening. After all, that’s how Amazon and Facebook know so much about you, and they are (mostly) trying to use their powers for at least hypothetical good (and likely to be at least mostly responsible because they want to keep the government out of their business).

Tips and Resources

You already know my favorite place to start — Vaccine Finder. But there is no one-size fits all website for this.

It’s a lot of work to find a vaccine appointment slot. It’s getting better, but oh, it’s been so awful, and some of the websites are so painful to use. The first time I tried to make a vaccine appointment, I wanted to cry, and I gave up, and waited weeks to a month before trying again. Of course you want to find an easier way to do it, and that’s why all these sites are popping up trying to solve these problems. And that is also what makes this such a wonderful opportunity for the unethical folk. Most of the sites that are doing this are genuinely trying to help people, but not all of them are from nice folk. How did I decide where it was safe for me to make my appointment? This is where we get back to CRAAP and CHAIN-of-TRUST. This is why I ask WHO as the first question when I am looking at a site that is giving or taking my information or money.

  • Government
    • Federal
    • State
    • County
    • City
  • Insurance
  • Clinic or health system
  • Public health department

If a website is from the federal government, I hope they are going to do the right thing. Again, this can be (and often is) debated, but for today, let’s just assume that it is in the best interest of the government to make it as easy as possible for people to get vaccinated so we can get the pandemic more under control. Even if you don’t trust the government perfectly, it’s fair to assume that there is nothing they are likely to find out from you scheduling a vaccine appointment that they don’t already know about you. (In case you haven’t guessed, I’ve been talking with people who are REALLY concerned about some of these issues.)

Next, if you are lucky enough to have insurance or belong to a health system, these are likely to have their own system set up for getting a vaccine, and it is going to be more private than most of those pop-up home grown web sites to help people find their vaccine. It might not be as easy to use, though. State and country health departments are another place to check, and the CDC has a list of them all for the USA, if you aren’t sure how to find yours.

Knowing the sites to trust isn’t enough, though, if they are too hard to figure out. There are a number of places with people volunteering to help other folk walk through the vaccine process. Local churches and non-profits are not bad places to start, or community organizations, especially if you already have a relationship with them. There are people using the appearance of being a volunteer to do other kinds of scams, so you really want to start with someone you already know and trust, if at all possible. Try asking at the local public library reference desk, if that’s an option. There are some vaccine volunteer organizations that are being recommended by trustworthy organization, if you need help and can’t find it any other way. Here are a couple links for more information, just in case.

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