Vaccine bots pit computer scientists against state

Posted at 5:28 PM, Apr 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-01 20:55:31-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- A game of cat and mouse is emerging between state health officials and computer scientists trying to alert San Diegans to new vaccine appointments. Both sides appear to be digging in.

The Twitter bots, like @covidvaccinesd and @covaxsd, proved vital in helping Linda Garrett get a covid vaccine appointment for her husband, who has pre-existing conditions.

“We were spending several hours a day monitoring web sites and reregistering and updating information and always told that there were no available appointments,” she said Thursday.

That all changed when Garrett found out about the bots. Within two hours of following them on Twitter, she nabbed a vaccine slot for her husband next week.

“I think it made all the difference because I think I would still be struggling and my husband would have to wait 30 or 60 more days before he could make an appointment,” she said.

But while the bots helped Garrett get that much needed appointment, the state appears to want them gone. In fact, bot creators say they recently had to adjust their algorithms because the state changed to make it even harder for the bots to work.

In a statement, California's Public Health Department said, "My turn was designed for real Californians to make vaccine appointments, and intentionally makes it hard for computers to automate the booking process. Thus far, 2 million appointments have been booked and completed through the system."

On Thursday, County Board Chair Nathan Fletcher said he was unaware of the back and forth, but praised the bots.

“You’ve got to be a little tech savvy to be on Twitter, but I think it's been a tremendous asset and resource to a lot of folks,” he said.

An equity issue does remain - with 19 million Americans not having access to high speed internet.