Online-Only Vaccine Distribution Will Leave Too Many Behind

As the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines has begun across the U.S., there have been numerous reports of people having trouble getting it—not just because of its limited availability, but also because some counties and states have chosen to require computer and Internet access to sign up. This is a dangerous path. Implementing online-only signup requirements effectively ensures that only residents with computer and Internet access can sign up to receive the vaccine. We implore anyone organizing vaccinations to provide alternative signup options. 

To distribute the vaccine to all who need it, we must meet people where they are, even if that’s offline.

Restricting life-saving drugs, treatments, vaccines, or services to those who have Internet and computer access will inevitably leave some people behind—often the ones who need the services the most. For one, Internet access is not universal in the United States—upwards of 10% of Americans do not have Internet at all. Recent research shows that more than 25% of those 65 and older do not use the Internet. There are also gaps in use and availability for racial minorities. Given that frontline workers are more likely to be in a racial minority, to be elderly, or to live with someone who is, it is especially critical that access to the vaccine be offered through a variety of options that do not limit who can obtain it.

That’s not to say that online services themselves are a problem. They may work very well for many people. But it is simply impossible to expect everyone to be able to navigate the sometimes labyrinthine requirements for vaccine signups online. Digital literacy is unevenly distributed, with rates decreasing in populations that are older, or Black, Hispanic, or foreign born. High-income and well-educated Internet users are much more likely than others to use online government services.  Having alternatives to an online signup is necessary to ensure equity, especially as many of the critical groups in need are also those who may benefit most from other options.

The pandemic has already been particularly detrimental for many of those same groups who lack reliable, high-speed Internet. Already-marginalized young people have been disconnected from education, rural and low-income communities have been separated from everything from grocery options to conducting their businesses, and seniors have been unable to obtain essential services. While alternative options for vaccine signups, such as a phone system, are easily overwhelmed, they are necessary for ensuring that some of the most vulnerable populations have access. We applaud all those working tirelessly to help end the COVID-19 pandemic, from researchers and scientists to those in government and health organizations, to nurses, doctors, and volunteers. But just as it takes a wide group of people working together to accomplish this monumental task, it will also take more than just the Internet to reach everyone. To distribute the vaccine to all who need it, we must meet people where they are, even if that’s offline.

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Author: Jason Kelley

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