A new standby list for COVID-19 vaccines is rolling out across the country to connect people with doses that would otherwise go to waste.
More than half a million people have already signed up on Dr. B, which texts users based on their eligibility status when there are extra doses nearby in jeopardy of going unused.
Cyrus Massoumi, the website's founder, said Dr. B serves as a "way of helping people help people."
"You have people who want the vaccines for them or their loved ones, and your vaccine providers want to do the right thing, but they need the appropriate tools to deal with the operational challenges of vaccinating the whole country," Massoumi told USA TODAY.
So far, Dr. B is helping people get vaccines through two providers in Arkansas and New York, but it will have 200 vaccination sites across 30 states using the tool in the coming weeks, said Massoumi, a co-founder and former CEO of Zocdoc, the online doctor's appointment booking website.
While other tools crowdsource information to help people find open vaccine appointments, Dr. B only aims to connect people with doses that would expire.
Users sign up with Dr. B by giving the same information they would give to their local health department, Massoumi said. People are prioritized into groups based on how their local health departments determine eligibility. Within those groups, people are prioritized by the order in which they signed up for Dr. B.
According to the website, people will have 15 minutes to confirm they can make it to the vaccination site. They will then have about two hours to make it there, the site says.
"The system is designed to make sure that no dose gets wasted," Massoumi said.
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After a COVID-19 vaccine vial is diluted or the first dose is drawn from any of the three vaccines authorized for use in the U.S., providers have six hours before the remaining doses must be discarded.
The timing has created scrambles at some vaccination sites where providers must rush to use the extra doses if someone cancels or doesn't show up.
In some cases, people have gotten lucky and been given a vaccine because they were nearby just before the dose was set to expire. Some vaccination sites have allowed its staff to reach out to people they know who haven't received a vaccine. Others may have people line up outside with the hope that extra doses will be available. In some cases, doses have been discarded.
"You've got all of these outcomes, none of which are optimal, none of which are efficient, and none of which are equitable," Massoumi said.
Dr. B, on the other hand, would help providers connect with people in the area by first reaching those who are eligible and prioritized according to local guidelines, Massoumi said.
In some cases, especially those with tighter timeframes, multiple people may be texted to ensure that vaccine is not going to waste. Additionally, someone who is not prioritized could get a vaccine through Dr. B, especially when there is a time crunch, Massoumi said.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said a tool like Dr. B is "really serving an important role in the ecosystem" of vaccine distribution.
Similar services exist for other purposes, like lotteries for Broadway tickets, Adalja said. If you can get a text that a pair of "Hamilton" tickets are available at the last minute, you should be able to get a text that a COVID-19 vaccine is available, too, he said.
"The fact that we have these websites is good. It will diminish the chances that vaccine will ever end up in the trash can," Adalja said.
Public health experts have largely come to a consensus that getting a vaccine administered, even if someone is moving ahead of their place in priority status, is better than the dose being wasted.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has issued guidance urging “a flexible approach” to the vaccine, especially when it was in danger of going unused.
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Adalja also said the benefit of giving more people the COVID-19 vaccine outweighs any potential risk to a person's privacy that comes with a site like Dr. B.
Dr. B collects users' names, cellphone numbers, email addresses, birthdates, ZIP codes, occupations and information about any underlying conditions they may have that would put them in a heightened eligibility group for receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
When a vaccine becomes available, the information a user shares with Dr. B is shared with the vaccine provider. Massoumi said users' data is never shared with anyone else, and it's not sold or used for advertising purposes.
The site says it is not a covered entity under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the law that protects a patient's privacy and access to their health information, but it acts as if it were.
"People give more to their Apple iPhone every day," added Adalja. "It's well worth it to get a vaccine and let someone know my ZIP code."
Contributing: Elizabeth Weise
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID vaccine near me: Dr. B standby list texts about unused vaccines