NREL software engineer helps folks find available COVID-19 vaccines

750,000 unique users accessed site in less than a month

Paul Albani-Burgio
palbaniburgio@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/15/21

It wasn't long after the first COVID-19 vaccines went into arms that NREL software engineer Nick Muerdter started hearing constantly about the difficulties faced by his coworkers that trying to set …

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NREL software engineer helps folks find available COVID-19 vaccines

750,000 unique users accessed site in less than a month

Posted

It wasn't long after the first COVID-19 vaccines went into arms that NREL software engineer Nick Muerdter started hearing constantly about the difficulties faced by his coworkers that trying to set up a shot for their family members.

“It sounded like a lot of it was just so repetitive and frustrating because they would go to one pharmacy's website and enter their location and then click on their nearest store and then click several more times to find out `oh, nope they don't actually have vaccines available' and that would just happen over and over again” he said. “I heard from people that were spending their entire day trying different stores and zip codes.”

But where most people would probably just commiserate and move on, Muerdter found himself thinking that there had to be a better way — and that he might just be able to build it.

“I knew computers can do that kind of task a lot more efficiently than humans,” said Muerdter. “So I poked around on some of the pharmacy websites and thought maybe I could try to gather that data from the pharmacy more organically.”

The result of that effort is vaccinespotter.org, a free website that produces a continuously updated list of open vaccine appointment slots around the state.

To search for appointments, users just enter their zip code to bring up a list of the closest pharmacies the tool can find that have open appointments. From there, they can click on a link that takes them to the website for that pharmacy to register for the appointment.

The website launched in February and immediately started getting attention — on the same day Muerdter first posted online about it Gov. Jared Polis took to his Facebook page to tell his 135,000 followers about the tool.

“Thank you, Nick,” Polis wrote in his post.

The tool has also caught the eyes of the Jefferson County Public Health and the Jeffco Commissioners, who have also lauded the tool.

But perhaps the biggest proof of the tool's success and the need it is filling is the 750,000 unique users who have accessed it since its launch just a month ago. That number includes users from around the nation as Muerdter recently updated it to work in every state, as well as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“A lot of people have gotten in touch to tell me how much it has helped them after they had struggled to find something,” said Muerdter. “Some of the best stories are when people say I was able to find something in five minutes after spending hours looking elsewhere.”

But even as the tool fills a vital need, it does have limitations and challenges, Muerdter said.

For one, it is currently limited to searching pharmacies for appointments — meaning users cannot use it to schedule appointments from hospitals or other health care providers. That's because those providers generally function using a waitlist rather than by letting people sign up for specific appointments.

Then there is the antibot technology used by some pharmacies, which Muerdter is continuously having to find new ways around by employing ever-more sophisticated means of mimicking a human user.

And finally, there is the nature of the vaccine landscape itself, which has now changed with the introduction of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine that means the site must now account for vaccines that require one shot and those that require two.

“It does require a fair amount of upkeep to try to keep things humming,” he said.

But while Muerdter is proud that his site has been able to help people, he says his ultimate hope is for it not to be needed long term as the amount of vaccine available continues to increase and appointments become easier to access.

That process could also be helped by a new website touted by President Joe Biden in his March 11 address to the nation that sounds similar to the one Muerdter created.

“At the time when every adult is eligible (for the vaccine) in May, we will launch with our partners new tools to make it easier to find the vaccine and where to get the shot, including a new website that will help you find the place to get vaccinated and the one nearest you,” said Biden. “No more searching day and night for an appointment for your loved ones.”

Thanks to Muerdter, however, there's no need to wait until then.

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