How to Improve Your Chances of Scheduling a COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment

Illustration for article titled How to Improve Your Chances of Scheduling a COVID-19 Vaccine Appointment

Photo: James Andrews1 (Shutterstock)

When not one, but two safe and highly efficacious vaccines received Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration in December 2020—less than a year after the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States— it almost seemed too good to be true. (Which is not to imply that corners were cut in the research or trials; everything happened with unprecedented cooperation and speed, but the process wasn’t rushed.)

After months of hearing that aspects of our pre-pandemic lives could return “once there’s an effective vaccine widely available,” learning an effective vaccine existed felt like a huge milestone. We were—at least in theory—one step closer to normal.

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The rollout began with healthcare workers and those living in long-term care facilities, where the appointments were made internally. But once it got to the point where “regular” people—like older adults and essential workers—had to start making appointments for themselves, the problems began immediately and have continued ever since.

For many, even those in at-risk groups, the limited supply of the vaccine, coupled with the confusing process of scheduling an appointment to obtain it, has made actually getting immunized seem impossible. Here are some strategies to help you prepare for and maybe even improve your chances of getting a COVID-19 vaccine appointment online.

There’s a lot here, so we’e broken it down into sections:

Challenges of making a COVID-19 vaccine appointment online

How to prepare to book an appointment online

Tips for the actual booking process

Strategies to avoid

The challenges of making a COVID vaccine appointment online

Technically, in most cases, it’s “possible” to make an appointment by phone, but more often than not, that means waiting on hold for hours only to find out there are no appointments available. That leaves the option of attempting to book online. It’s easy to dismiss older adults as not having the tech skills necessary to navigate these sites, but really, between all the glitches, crashes and site outages, it’s a challenge for anybody.

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“You have to be computer-savvy and be able to take time to work to get an appointment,” says Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a professor in pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine, and the former Director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Public Health Information Dissemination.

Not everyone has the privilege of being able to spend hours at a time scouring pharmacy sites and refreshing health departments’ scheduling system—including essential workers, like grocery store, pharmacy, or food service employees.

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“Groups like essential workers who are at higher risk of COVID-19 may not have time to get online to get an appointment for vaccine,” Rasmussen tells Lifehacker. “That means that some people who need to be protected against COVID-19 aren’t able to get the vaccine.”

Given the time commitment and effort required to make an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine, here are some strategies that might help, whether you are booking one for yourself or someone else.

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Before you attempt to book an appointment

It may seem like all you’d have to do to book an appointment for a COVID vaccine would be to fill out a few quick fields on a webform, submit it with a few clicks, and presto: appointment! If only. In most cases, it involves some prep work before you even get started.

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Figure out if/when you’re eligible

If you’re making an appointment for an older relative, chances are they’re eligible—but double check on their state’s website to confirm. If you’re younger, and making an appointment for yourself, it’s all about paying attention. If you’re under the age of 65, your chance to get vaccinated will likely either come when appointments are open to adults in the general public, or if you have certain preexisting conditions.

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If you think you might have a preexisting condition, check your state’s eligibility list (they vary) to see if your ailment(s) qualify. If it looks like they do, the next step is seeing what you’ll be required to produce at the appointment as proof of the health conditions—typically a letter from your doctor or lab results indicating your comorbidities. You won’t need the documentation to make your booking, but it’s good to ensure that you’ll have access to it when your appointment rolls around.

Then, pay attention! If you’re not in the habit of watching, reading or listening to your local news, now’s the time to start. Every state (and county) is different, so sign up for email and/or text alerts with news of which prioritization group is currently eligible. Set a Google News alert for vaccine news in your area.

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Locate and make note of your state’s booking rules and procedures

But because every state (and in some cases, local) health department can make up its own rules, you should probably find out what they are. This resource, from the Wall Street Journal, provides instructions for each state.

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Make a list of all the places where you can make an appointment

You may think there is one central location for making all the COVID-19 vaccine appointments in your area. That would certainly make sense, but it’s not necessarily true. And while having multiple sites for booking appointments can get confusing, that’s actually a “good” thing if you’re tech-savvy, because it gives you more places to try.

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As you’re preparing to make an appointment, make a list of all the different systems you’re potentially able to book through. There is usually a statewide site, but certain cities, counties, or hospital systems may have separate booking sites of their own. Don’t assume that one statewide website is your only option—it’s probably not. Open a Google doc for all your prep work, and paste all the potential booking links there.

You may need to register first

In some cases, you may have to register online before you can make an appointment. (Other states won’t allow you to go near any forms until you officially qualify.) But if, for example, your parent registered with the state, they may assume that they have done everything they can do to secure an appointment—when in fact they could also register with the county’s department of health, a local hospital, or the Department of Veterans Affairs, if applicable. Also, keep track of all your login information for each site.

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Don’t forget about pharmacies and grocery stores

If your vaccination strategy involves attempting to get one at a pharmacy or grocery chain like CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Walmart, or Publix, those sites may require you to register and open an account with them in order to book an appointment. You can always delete it if you don’t end up getting vaccinated there, or after receiving both doses. The key in all of this is to give yourself as many options as possible.

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Make a list of all your important information

Using the same Google doc where you’re stockpiling the links to different booking sites, make a list of all the relevant information you might need while filling a booking form. If you’ve registered with any of the booking sites ahead of time, make sure to have those usernames and passwords listed on your doc for easy access.

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While you probably have no problem recalling your own basic personal info, if you’re making the booking for someone else, you might not know every detail offhand. Have the following typed out and at the ready:

  • Full name
  • Address
  • Phone number
  • Email
  • Date of birth
  • County of residence
  • Health insurance plan, along with the member and group ID
  • The name, address and phone number of the person’s primary care physician (this may not be required, but in the event that it is, have it ready)

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Given how quickly the slots go once they’re available, anything you can do to shave even a few second off your booking time—like copying and pasting the information into the form instead of typing it manually—can be helpful.

Call to find out when booking starts

In situations where there are thousands of people suddenly eligible for the vaccine on the same day—as was the case in New York last weekend, when people with preexisting conditions could first make an appointment—it’s best to go in with as much information as possible.

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Sometimes, news stories or press releases from the health department will indicate a time that online booking starts. Other times, they don’t. If you don’t have a confirmed start time, make a quick phone call to the organization behind that booking site and get one.

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The actual booking process

Whether you want to make sure you or a loved one are first in the virtual line when a new block of appointments opens up, or you’re on your 328th attempt to book whatever you can get, here are some things that could improve your chances of getting one of the coveted slots.

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Make sure your computer is ready to roll

Let’s say your computer has been working perfectly for weeks. No problems at all. It will somehow be able to sense that you’re doing something important and time sensitive, and will decide that the minute you start registering for an appointment is the ideal time to restart and update. Don’t even give it that option—get that part over with the day before. Also make sure you have a stable internet connection.

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The more devices, the better

If you happen to have a tablet, second computer, or another person around who can help, make it an all-hands-on-deck situation. Just be sure to coordinate with each other in case someone does manage to book something.

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And speaking of devices, if you’re not using your phone for booking purposes, you can always call one of the booking hotlines and sit on hold while trying to find an appointment online. Reportedly, some people have had luck making appointments on the phone, so it’s not a bad idea to have that the hold music on speakerphone in the background. (Ideally, it’ll be some calming smooth jazz.)

Start checking the sites

You may want to keep multiple tabs or even browsers open for this part, so you can try your hand at getting an appointment through different sites at the same time. Of course, that does not mean you should book an appointment on more than one site—it’s all about increasing your odds.

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There’s a good chance the sites will crash, take forever to load, be missing entire sections, and time out while you’re filling out a form. Keep tabs on your tabs and refresh as needed.

Look to the future

Some places only post their vaccine appointment slots a few days in advance. Others go up months in advance. Of course you want that shot in your arm ASAP, but instead of trying to get one tomorrow, look a week or two down the line—you may have a better chance of finding available appointments.

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Another option that might work is clicking directly on a particular date on a booking calendar (if the site has an option like that), instead of scrolling through each day at a time until you find an open slot. So, for example, if you were trying to make an appointment today, don’t start by looking for openings tomorrow and then clicking through day-by-day until you see something. Jump right to March 4th (or any random date when appointments are available) and go from there.

Only fill out the required fields on the booking form

If you get lucky enough to make it to the page where you enter your information to make an appointment, only fill in the required information. This will all be located in your handy doc, but if some fields are optional—like entering the name and address of your primary care physician—skip them. It’s not uncommon for slots to disappear after you’ve gotten to the point of filling out the booking form, so get through it ASAP and with the minimum information required.

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Be cautious about where you’re clicking

In the mad dash to attempt to book vaccine appointments, it can be easy to be a little lax when it comes to internet safety. For example, only click on links to official booking sites—like a health department, pharmacy or hospital system—even if a friend sends you something else and swears it works.

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And while you probably already do this, double check to make sure that there’s a little lock just left of the web address in your browser, so you know the data you enter is encrypted.

Remember: The vaccines are free

Although you’ll likely be asked for your health insurance information, the COVID vaccine itself is free—even if you are uninsured or underinsured. So if any booking site asks for your credit card or any other payment information, delete anything you’ve already entered on the page and close the tab. If you do happen to get a bill for your vaccine, here’s what you can do to deal with that.

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Use crowdsourced vaccine appointment finders

Some cities and states have volunteer-led crowdsourced sites that provide real-time information on where appointments are available in a given area. Here is a helpful list of those sites, compiled by The Verge:

  • An NYC site called TurboVax pulls “the latest appointments from 43 city and state-run vaccine sites in the NYC area” and puts them on Twitter. Followers who set their Twitter notifications for @turbovax can quickly find out about newly opened appointment slots.
  • Another called NYC Vaccine List uses a combination of scripts and checks by volunteers to scour various sites for openings.
  • In California, VaccinateCA checks pharmacies and hospitals for information about open appointments.
  • Vaccinate NJ also uses volunteers to try to help state residents find vaccine opportunities.
  • Covid 19 Vaccine TX is a crowdsourced resource for registering with local counties and finding locations where vaccines may be available.
  • The MA Covid Vaccine Appointments site offers lists of and links to sites with available appointments.
  • A volunteer group in the state of Washington has launched the WA Covid Vaccine Finder as an aggregation resource for vaccination appointments.

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Use a tool to detect changes in websites

You may also want to try using a service that will monitor websites of your choosing and alert you when changes are made—in this case, when a vaccine appointment booking site or pharmacy updates their availability. Two options are Distill.io and Visualping, each of which has its own features and fee structures—including limited free options.

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Check Twitter

In a situation like this past Sunday morning, when thousands of New Yorkers were all vying for a very limited number of appointments at the same time, Twitter can be an extremely useful tool. People will often post screenshots of issues they’re having with different booking sites—which doesn’t necessarily help you directly, but at least confirms that you’re not the only one having that problem.

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But what is most useful are real-time tips people post for various sites, like what to enter to get around a particular glitch, or an unpublished link that somehow bypasses the logjam of people in virtual waiting rooms and takes you directly to the booking. If someone is lucky enough to score an appointment and did something slightly different to be able to get through this one time, they may be generous enough to let others know about it. This is where the search function and “Latest” section of your Twitter feed will come in handy.

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Look for patterns in availability

In some cases, different booking sites—including pharmacies— will be on some type of schedule, adding their new appointments at the same time every day. Here’s another tip from The Verge:

One thing that sometimes helps is to look for patterns in the appearance of new appointments. For example, when I heard that the pharmacy chain Walgreens was going to begin giving out vaccines in my area, I spent a couple of days going onto the site, and suddenly realized that there was a pattern: the company was only scheduling appointments two to four days in advance and was adding new appointments each day just after midnight. Once I understood the pattern, I was able to get appointments for a couple of friends, and let others know about it as well. (Note: since vaccine supplies and scheduling methods can change on a dime, this particular strategy may no longer work by the time you read this.)

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Like everything else here, that is certainly no guarantee that these tips will work, but again, anything you can do to increase your chances of getting an appointment is worth a try.

Don’t be a dick

We get it: desperate times call for desperate measures—especially when it comes to your own health, or the health of a loved one. But also keep in mind that the whole point of all of this is to end a pandemic that has resulted in a public health crisis. It’s in all of our best interest that as many people get vaccinated as possible, so try not to do anything to jeopardize that. A few examples:

Don’t make multiple appointments for one person

By all means, register on as many websites as you can in order to nab an appointment. But once you have a confirmed appointment, stop. You’re done. Don’t keep trying and book additional appointments through through health departments, hospital systems, or pharmacies. If you do so by accident, cancel the redundant booking right away (there should be instructions on how to cancel an appointment in your booking confirmation email).

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Yes, you may mean well. Maybe you thought you might try your luck at booking additional appointments to give to friends and family members, but that’s fruitless; the appointment is tied to your name and information. That means that when someone who is not you shows up, they’ll likely be turned away—and that wastes everyone’s time. You can always check with your state in the event that they allow this type of thing, but don’t hold your breath.

Don’t share a booking link

If you get an email notification from a health department or hospital system letting you know that you’re now eligible to book and there are slots available, it may come with a link. That link is not public and is not meant to be shared. If people who were not sent the link directly use it to book appointments, they’re taking the spot of someone who is eligible and did receive the link.

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On the flip side, be cautious about any links other people send you. For example, back in January, up to 20,000 people on Long Island booked spots using a widely-circulated link that wasn’t supposed to have been live yet, and they all had their appointments canceled.

Don’t lie about your eligibility

This one should be a given, but it’s been happening: If you’re not an essential worker, don’t indicate that you are. If you don’t have one of the preexisting conditions that makes you eligible for earlier access in your state, don’t lie and say that you do. Yes, this rollout has been a shitshow, but please, wait your turn. Don’t take an appointment away from someone in a higher-risk group.

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