In the early stages of a global push to distribute the coronavirus vaccine to those who need it most — a process that has, so far, managed to be both hectic and slow — some health officials have turned to an unexpected tool: the ticketing website Eventbrite.
Before the pandemic, the platform was a place to book tickets to performances, art shows or pub crawls. Now, public health officials are using it to schedule vaccination appointments.
Mai Miller, 48, of Merritt Island, Fla., scoured Eventbrite last week in search of a slot for her mother. She scrolled through pages of dates and times, repeatedly refreshing the site and hunting for booking buttons that were blue, signaling availability.
She found a few, but she couldn’t seem to click on them quickly enough. “It was just a scramble,” she said. “Like musical chairs with 20 chairs and 4,000 people.”
Ms. Miller didn’t find an appointment, but others have had some luck. Eventbrite has been used to schedule vaccinations in several counties in Florida, Vice reported, and mentions of Eventbrite vaccination tickets have popped up in other places, too — like the websites for Sevier County, Tenn., and the city of Allen, Texas.
This has raised concerns about accessibility: Not everyone has internet access or knows how to use Eventbrite. Those who do will have more luck if they can get online at the right time — whenever a batch of tickets becomes available — which could disadvantage people with slower connections or essential workers who have to maneuver around scheduled shifts.
And scams have already been reported. The health department of Pinellas County, Fla., warned that appointments made through a “fraudulent Eventbrite site” were not valid, and The Tampa Bay Times reported that Eventbrite had been used to charge people money for vaccination slots that turned out to be bogus.
These glitches are part of a much larger problem: Coronavirus vaccine distribution in the United States and elsewhere is an unprecedented project with vast operational challenges.
Federal officials have acknowledged that the rollout has been slower than expected. They have also left many details of the vaccine-distribution process, like scheduling and staffing, to overstretched local health officials and hospitals that have struggled with a lack of resources.
“It’s stressful for my people,” said Greg Foster, the director of emergency management for Nassau County, Fla., who is working with health department officials to administer the vaccine. “We’re getting a lot of irate people contacting us because they can’t get the vaccine, and I understand why they’re upset.”
Eventbrite, he said, has been a useful tool because the county’s own websites and phone lines did not have the bandwidth to handle the demand — to say nothing of the limited supply. “We have tens of thousands of people that are trying to get 850 vaccines,” Mr. Foster said.
In Brevard County, Fla., health department officials have been administering hundreds of doses a day. “Our staff, augmented by an incident management strike team consisting of National Guardsmen and paramedics, is amazing,” said Anita Stremmel, the assistant county health department director.
But the logistics have not been easy. “Initial efforts to schedule appointments by phone led to phone outages and dropped lines,” she said — so when officials there saw other counties using Eventbrite, they decided to follow suit.
To avoid scams, Ms. Stremmel said, people should access the Eventbrite page only through the health department’s website.
Ms. Miller, who lives in Brevard County, said someone texted her a link to the Eventbrite vaccination bookings last week. “My first reaction was, this does not look legit,” she said.
But she was determined to help her mother, Chut Agger, 68, get an appointment. A visit to the county website confirmed that the Eventbrite link was real, so Ms. Miller tried her luck. She knew the platform because she had used it before — to buy concert tickets — but she still couldn’t secure a spot.
“I couldn’t imagine my mother, who is not at all tech savvy, trying to make the appointment herself,” Ms. Miller said.
Ms. Agger agreed that she was not skilled in the art of Eventbrite bookings. Her preferred medium was the telephone. Before her daughter tried getting an appointment online, Ms. Agger spent hours calling the county health department for an appointment. She used two phones at once and hit the redial button hundreds of times. She never got through to a human being.
Ms. Agger recalled news reports that showed other Floridians lining up outside for hours to claim vaccinations that were being administered on a first-come, first-served basis. “All the elderly people lining up and sitting there overnight — that’s just not right,” she said. She has no plans to try that tactic herself.
“No,” she said. “I’ll just wait.”
In a statement, Eventbrite, calling itself a “self-service ticketing and experience platform,” said that anyone who used the platform to register for events related to the coronavirus should direct their questions to local health officials.
“We are actively exploring how our platform can best support the effort to increase access to vaccines,” it said.
The company did not answer questions about protecting the privacy of people who booked vaccination appointments on the platform.
Using Eventbrite to process protected medical information could violate privacy regulations under America’s Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, said Kayte Spector-Bagdady, an associate director at the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan.
But she emphasized that local officials appeared to be using the tools at their disposal to get the vaccine to as many people as possible, adding that they would have been helped by better planning and coordination from state and federal officials.
“Now individual counties and institutions are really left to catch as catch can — to try and vaccinate the population in fair ways while trying to get more product from the feds to the states, and then use all the product they have,” Professor Spector-Bagdady said. “It’s extraordinarily complex, so I have nothing but sympathy for these health care workers, who are scrambling to get shots into arms.”
For now, it appears that regulators will not get in their way. The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services is “not interested in imposing HIPAA penalties on providers that are doing the best they can to quickly vaccinate people,” said its director, Roger Severino.
Ms. Miller said she was not especially concerned about privacy when she used Eventbrite to find a vaccination appointment for Ms. Agger. Her main focus, she said, was keeping her mother safe from Covid-19.
“Now there’s this vaccine, and it seems almost unattainable,” she said. “It’s there, but we can’t get to it. There has to be a better way.”