Published 12 February 2021

Why is an Equitable COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout So Hard?

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is not a technical challenge — it’s a design and behavior one.

It’s been over 50 years since Apollo 11 landed the first people on the Moon. Fast forward to today, we have more computing power in our smartphones than the computers aboard the spacecraft. And yet, we can’t figure out how to put COVID-19 vaccines into the arms of people who need it the most. Is this really harder than rocket science? Well, yes. Here’s why.

Were We Underprepared?

In 2017, the United States saw one of the most severe flu seasons in recent years. One of the biggest challenges we faced that season was accounting for the antiviral supply across our country and properly allocating shipment where there was a shortage. In response, Boston Children’s Hospital created a platform to do just that. They worked with the design and technology community, including Exygy, to develop MedFinder, a tool that provides crucial information for health officials to make timely decisions and also inform the public where to receive critical medications. With tools like this, we felt more prepared to combat future epidemics and pandemics.

Did We Not Try Hard Enough?

Even before the COVID-19 vaccines were approved, many health systems, government agencies, and private organizations were already building new tools to roll out the anticipated vaccine. Boston Children’s Hospital already had plans to leverage MedFinder to launch a sister site focused on vaccine supply distribution, called VaccineFinder. In recent news, Google announced their plan to partner with VaccineFinder to get more vaccines to more people. 

This is not the only example of the technology community coming together to build tools to fight this crisis. Huge Ma, a frustrated software developer from New York, built TurboVax, a site that aggregates vaccine supply data from multiple cities’ systems in New York, in two weeks for $50. There’s also VaccineCA, a volunteer-run program that provides up-to-date vaccine information in California, offered in multiple languages.

So, What’s the Problem?

We have the tools and commitment from influential organizations to expedite the rollout. So, what’s the problem? The problem is that someone like me, who has a flexible work schedule and experience with technology, can access these tools easily to find vaccines. Meanwhile, an essential worker with demanding work hours and limited technology availability faces a tremendous disadvantage. Our essential workers need to be prioritized, not me.

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is not a technical challenge — it’s a design and behavior one. When we focus primarily on supplying resources to the public, our current biased systems will run its course and favor the privileged. Even if we do not intend to perpetuate inequities, by accepting default behavior and systemic structures, we are designing for inequity. Solving this challenge requires understanding the lived experience for all people, especially the marginalized and BIPOC community, and designing a path that is equitable each step of the way.

What does that look like? Here are two examples that are helping make an equitable vaccine rollout:

  • Crowdsourcing open vaccine appointments: Washingtonians have created a Facebook group, “Find a COVID Shot WA,” to help get the word out for open appointments for high risk individuals: folks who are medically fragile, and/or Black and Latinx. The group has nearly 17k members, and similar pages are popping up across the US.
  • Removing the transportation barrier: for many low-income communities of color, public transit has been reduced or is altogether inaccessible, making it that much harder to get a vaccine. In December, Uber announced a partnership with the National Urban League, offering 10 million free or discounted rides to communities of color. Lyft has committed 60 million free rides to low-income, uninsured, at-risk communities.

Where have you seen others at work for an equitable vaccine rollout? What role does tech play here? Let’s continue the conversation:

Eric Lam
Eric Lam
Partner, Health

Eric has a breadth of experience in coaching clients on how to adapt product design & development methodologies within their organization. Plus, he loves bouldering and rescue dogs.

Ivy Teng Lei
Ivy Teng Lei
Head of Growth

Ivy is a proud product of the NYC public school system, a DREAMer, and an immigrant and education advocate.