Massachusetts may be a world leader in digital technology, but when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations it’s being left in the dust by West Virginia.
Newly eligible residents in Massachusetts seeking COVID vaccine shots may face a bewildering trek through multiple websites littered with complex instructions. But in West Virginia, there’s just one website to visit, or one toll-free number to call.
And the technology that makes it work comes from Massachusetts.
Burlington-based Everbridge builds emergency communications systems for corporations and governments worldwide. The government of Norway uses an Everbridge system to send emergency messages to the entire population. Everbridge also runs the AlertsMA system, which sends weather alerts and COVID-19 updates to Massachusetts residents via robocalls and text messages.
Everbridge wasn’t directly involved with vaccine distribution until Andy Malinoski came along. Malinoski, director of communications at the West Virginia Department of Commerce, had looked into using Everbridge to help manage the state’s 2020 census, but decided against it.
But in early January, when Malinoski was looking for a better way to sign people up for vaccine shots, “it just hit me. I wonder if Everbridge could help us?”
West Virginia had already set up an unusually effective COVID vaccination strategy. Instead of relying mainly on hospitals, clinics, and the national drugstore chains Walgreens and CVS, the state enlisted independent small-town pharmacies to do the injections.
While the system was adequate early on, when the state was getting about 25,000 doses per week, Malinoski feared it would bog down when vaccines became more plentiful, and more people became eligible to receive them. There was no simple way to sign up. People had to set up appointments through their local health departments. And if their nearest vaccination sites didn’t have vaccine on hand, there was no easy way to join a waiting list, or to be notified when a shot was available.
“If we got 200,000 vaccines on Sunday, how would I find 200,000 arms?” Malinoski wondered.
When he asked Everbridge for help, the company assembled a solution in two weeks, based on its emergency communications system. “We put it together in record time,” said Brian Toolan, Everbridge’s head of government strategy.
Since West Virginia deployed the system last month, 200,000 of the state’s 1.9 million residents have used it.
People can request a vaccination through a web page or by calling a toll-free phone number. Those who qualify are put on a waiting list. When an appointment becomes available, they get a phone call, text message, or e-mail telling them when and where to get the injection.
“It can say, ‘Hello, you are eligible now for a vaccine,’ ” Malinoski said. “ ‘If you want it, press one.’ ” If the person can’t make it that day, they’re put back on the waiting list, and the system offers the shot to someone else.
While other states have unused stockpiles of vaccine, West Virginia is vaccinating people nearly as fast as the doses arrive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 86 percent of the doses West Virginia has received have been administered; Massachusetts, by contrast, has administered only about 50 percent of the 1 million doses shipped to the state.
Malinoski said that West Virginia’s hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies could vaccinate up to 100,000 people a week if enough doses were available. He said the Everbridge system will automatically contact people to set up appointments, ensuring that vaccine isn’t sitting unused or going to waste.
Everbridge has also deployed the scheduling system in Sarasota County in Florida, where 70,000 people signed up in the first hour. Toolan said the system could quickly be deployed in Massachusetts or anywhere else.
“We’ve talked to probably well over 50 jurisdictions across the country,” he said. “We’re ready to roll this out anytime somebody needs it.”