6 real-world tips for successfully booking COVID-19 vaccine appointments
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In a strange turn of events, the same online sleuthing and quick-on-the-keyboard booking skills that were helpful when snagging a business-class saver airline award ticket to Australia, ordering Lysol wipes back in the peak mayhem of March 2020 or back when snagging hot concert tickets was a thing, are now precisely the skills that could save a life.
Across the U.S., the COVID-19 vaccine has been available to eligible groups since late-2020. Unfortunately, being eligible in any given state is only half the battle. In many cases, you also have to snag an online appointment slot to get the shot — a task that has ranged from tough for the internet-savvy to borderline impossible for those that aren’t.
Since late-December, I’ve been (obsessively) studying the vaccine rollout and associated booking process in order to help secure appointments for my parents who are in their 70s and other eligible family members. Eventually, I moved on to helping friends, friends of friends and anyone else I knew of who needed help in securing an appointment.
I can’t develop vaccines, save lives in the ICU or even put shots in arms, but I’ve gotten pretty good at finding COVID-19 vaccine appointments.
Here are my tips for finding COVID-19 vaccines if you are having trouble.
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Know the rules
Before we get into how to find vaccine appointments, let’s start with a reminder to know the eligibility rules for your state. These rules can and will keep changing as your state (or portion of the state) works through the different priority groups. Some states have very clear criteria based on age, while others have broader lists that may even include relatively common criteria such as having high blood pressure, a 30.0 or higher BMI or asthma.
So, before assuming you are — or aren’t — currently eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, you’ve really got to read the fine print for your particular state. Also, know that some states or areas expressly state you need to be a resident to receive a vaccine, while others don’t have that requirement.
And, of course, once you know the eligibility rules for your area, they will keep changing until we reach general population rollout, so this isn’t a check it once and forget it thing if you aren’t yet eligible. For example, just recently, President Biden instructed states to vaccinate teachers with at least the first dose of the vaccine by the end of March, which should open that near-term pathway for eligible educators for the roughly 50% of states that hadn’t already identified them as a priority group.
Get on the lists
After verifying the eligibility requirements, it’s time to get on some vaccine waiting lists.
Register high and low in your area with everyone ranging from the county-run vaccination lists to urgent and emergency care facilities that are accepting names on a list to large hospital systems and your individual physician offices.
In most areas, there’s no singular magical list to join. There are many you should be on simultaneously.
What we’ve seen is that some of these organizations will work through the priority lists faster than others and begin inviting those further down on the list with little to no notice, so being on a list can only increase your odds of getting a vaccine sooner rather than later.
Search the pharmacy sites
While it wasn’t true at first, now the major national pharmacy chains are pretty reliably offering COVID-19 appointments in most states. However, when they refresh their calendar with available appointments and the precise process to book the appointments varies.
CVS allows you to see which cities vaccine appointments are available in its 29 available states and territories before you go further in the process, though — of course — availability can change quickly. (And yes, like with airline award bookings, “phantom availability” is a thing.) It also highlights the currently bookable groups when you select a specific state.
You can start by searching here with a ZIP code, but you may have better luck with a city name. Also, remember those “smaller” cities that may have shown as available on that first screen. If you are willing to drive a little bit, you may have better luck here than sticking to the big-name cities. For example, within an hour and change outside of Houston, cities such as Huntsville, Tomball and Orange have been far easier for booking appointments at CVS than in the actual city limits.
Pro tip: CVS tends to load big blocks of appointments around 6 to 7 a.m. and books up to a week in advance, so be sure and check the dates furthest out for the best availability. Note that if you are booking an appointment for someone else, once you get an appointment slot, CVS will ask you for a whole lot of information well beyond name, date of birth and qualifying condition or profession.
It is possible to book a second-dose only appointment with CVS, if necessary.
Walmart has been my favorite way to book vaccine appointments, but note that you will need to set up an online account to book your COVID-19 vaccine. This is also true for Walmart’s sister company, Sam’s Club, which is also administering vaccines in some locations. You do not need to be a paying member of Sam’s Club to book an appointment, but you will need an online account. However, you can book for someone else from your online account.
With Walmart, you have to check individual store availability, which is a bit cumbersome. However, what makes it my favorite booking site is the reliability of new appointments loading around midnight local time, one day at a time, for just under a week in advance. This doesn’t happen every single night, but in my tests, it has worked several nights per week.
Pro tip: But it gets better than just knowing the appointments usually load around midnight. Being in Central Standard Time, I realized that if I change my phone’s time to Eastern, the appointments locally display an hour earlier, so around 11 p.m. instead of at midnight. Again, this isn’t a perfect science, but it has worked more than it failed in my tests.
Like with Walmart, you need an account set-up with Walgreens before you can search vaccine appointments. However, at least in my tests, this system is even more restrictive than Walmart as it would not allow me to book appointments for others from my account as it prefills name and date of birth information.
A handy functionality with CVS is that before you get too far into the process, it will flag if an appointment is available in the next three days in your area. Like with the others, searching with city names can result in more options than just using your ZIP code.
You can book a second-dose only vaccine with CVS and you can flag whether you need a Moderna or Pfizer second dose.
Learning which locations in your area reliably restock appointments and being online when those appointments commonly load (often, but not always, around midnight or very early in the morning) should be enough to get an appointment before too long. However, if you have a tech-savvy family member looking to help, it is theoretically possible to set up a page change alert to ping you when a specific page changes. However, there are realistic limits to this based on how those tools often work.
For example, a page change alert set via Visualping could likely alert you via email when the cities on this page change but couldn’t go so far as to indicate whether your specific closest CVS has an appointment or actually book an appointment for you. The version of this service you’d need to be useful given how frequently these things change is not free and I don’t really recommend it if you aren’t already using it for other purposes.
Join Facebook groups
If you are just looking for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for yourself or a few people, a far better approach than diving into any specific tech tools or browser extensions is to virtually network.
Join local vaccine-focused Facebook groups
There are a growing number of online groups dedicated to people helping others find vaccine appointments. Most of these groups reside on Facebook and many are private groups that require joining to share and use information. The best groups are focused on a specific area such as Vaccinate Houston, COVID Vaccine Help New York, New York / Connecticut Vaccine Hunters and Angels, Long Island COVID Vaccine Information, New Jersey COVID Vaccine Sites, PA COVID Vaccine Match Maker and the list goes on.
To find a group for your city, state or area, go to the Facebook Groups section of Facebook and search some combination of terms such as COVID + vaccine + your area and have some patience looking around as the search tool isn’t the best.
These groups will frequently share which pharmacy locations have the best availability, can tip you off to large scale sites that are accepting appointments (or even taking anyone), will keep you in the loop when large batches of appointments are available and can even point you toward opportunities to volunteer in exchange for a potential vaccine.
This is precisely how I got vaccinated in Texas before I was otherwise in an identified group.
I learned of a volunteer opportunity at a major hospital-run drive-through vaccine site that was requesting volunteers. In exchange for working in a non-medical role, I was vaccinated by the hospital approximately a week later. Without the Facebook group, it’s unlikely I would have learned of that volunteer opportunity.
If you are looking to volunteer in a similar fashion, in addition to following Facebook groups, also register as a volunteer with your area’s medical reserve corp (you can often register as a non-medical volunteer) and find out if other organizations, such as a hospital system, are accepting non-medical volunteers to aid in their large-scale vaccine clinics. Those will often have a different volunteer sign-up process than the county-run programs.
If you join an active group focused on finding COVID-19 vaccine appointments and check what is posted several times a day, that is likely your very best tool for getting a vaccine as quickly as possible in your area.
Follow county officials and vaccine distribution groups
While you are following groups on Facebook, it’s recommended that you also follow local officials for your area and groups that are in charge of mass vaccine clinics. In my own town, there have been a couple of occasions when a vaccine drive had far more no-shows than expected and they had several hundred vaccines leftover that were suddenly available.
This information was shared by the medical group providing the shots and the local county judge on Facebook. As you would expect, within an hour or so, all “extra” vaccines were spoken for, so check often and move quickly.
Follow vaccine bots on Twitter
Another very helpful resource that is available in some areas are vaccine bots (and human-manned) accounts on Twitter.
Like with the Facebook groups, you need to find the bot specific to your area for it to be very useful. The largest is likely @turbovax that is focused on NYC appointment availability. I’ve seen additional vaccine-focused Twitter accounts in New York, New Jersey, San Antonio and beyond.
Some of these accounts are very niche, such as this one that only hunts for CVS appointments in Virginia (likely using a page change alert such as mentioned above), and some are broader in what they cover.
Consider looking beyond your immediate area
You may find this hard to believe if you live in an area where the COVID-19 vaccine is still only available to a small list of extremely high-risk groups, but in some parts of the country, it’s already available to any adult who wants one.
These areas are often more sparsely populated and not immediately neighboring a major metropolitan area. Unfortunately, these are also the areas that have a higher prevalence of vaccine hesitancy in the community, for one reason or another.
For example, in Texas, there are many reports of vaccines being available to any adult who would like one in Odessa, Amarillo and in the Orange/Beaumont area, among others. And in some cases, there’s not even an associated residency restriction, which has led to some regional “vaccine tourism” of sorts when people fly or drive-in for the day to get a vaccine. Frequently, it’s not the chain pharmacies that initially open it up to anyone, but the larger clinics that are giving thousands of vaccines per day or week that move first toward expanding eligibility.
It’s not just Texas. Out in Arizona, this has reportedly also played out in Gila County, however as of now, that is limited to those who live or work in that county.
For context, these areas aren’t able to continue distributing the vaccines they have on hand, they likely won’t continue to receive them at the same rate, so they have every incentive to move beyond the initially identified groups and continue to simply get “shots in arms.”
Knowing that some areas have already expanded to the “vaccines for all” phase of the rollout will help when understanding that even if you aren’t able or comfortable traveling very far for a vaccine, at least consider pharmacies and clinics slightly outside your precise location. Even driving an hour or two may enable you to get vaccine days, weeks (or perhaps months) sooner than you otherwise would. Not only that, but it frees up a vaccine in your area, where they may be in more limited supply.
It can be very stressful trying to secure a COVID-19 vaccine, even if you already expressly eligible in your hometown.
The COVID-19 vaccine rollout system leans on a technological patchwork that frequently requires working multiple avenues at regular intervals to secure your dose. Anyone who just registers with one site and waits (or worse yet, just waits) to be contacted will almost certainly wait far longer than someone who is actively searching for appointments.
Naturally, some folks are more adept at surfing the internet vaccine appointment hunting than others. And, as it turns out, anyone who has been at the award travel game for some time is likely well-equipped to follow some of this advice and help themselves — and others — line-up a coveted vaccine appointment faster than average. Those skills and the subsequent vaccination may not only reopen the door to travel, but it could also save a life.
Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy
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