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Connecting the Shots

When COVID-19 vaccines were hard to find, a team of Pitt computer science students stepped in to help.
Illustrated by
Joyce Hesselberth

moving illustration of three masked, caped people flying over landscape of trees, the words "Vaccinate" and "PA" on two of the three capes

It’s been a long day for first-year computer science student Courtney Sheridan. The spring term is in full swing and her workload is only increasing. The January day has been a whirlwind of classes and homework. It isn’t over yet, either, as she logs onto the Pitt Computer Science Club’s virtual weekly meeting.

Once all of the typical agenda items are covered, Sheridan gets ready to log out. Instead, she finds herself listening with rapt attention to the conversation between two club officers, junior Ming Wang and sophomore Richie Goulazian. The two computer science majors are discussing an ambitious new project, VaccinatePA—a crowdsourced website Wang started to better connect Pennsylvania residents to available vaccines.

The website would certainly be welcomed by many. It’s the early days of the state’s vaccine rollout, and residents are having to hunt down information about vaccine availability from individual clinics and providers, who themselves struggle to wade through the flood of calls. The process can be chaotic and frustrating.

With VaccinatePA, Wang and Goulazian plan to centralize the vaccine information to make getting an appointment a lot less like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Sheridan listens with fascination as Wang and Goulazian, neither of whom she has met in person, talk about fortifying the site they created on their own. Finally, she’s heard enough of the brilliant idea, and she unmutes herself to enthusiastically let them know that she wants to help.

So, on top of her regular schoolwork, she joins Wang, Goulazian and a few other volunteers to make VaccinatePA viable. At first, the work entails calling providers to learn about vaccine availability, inputting that information onto the website, and starting all over again the next day to keep the site updated with fresh data.

It doesn’t take too many days of that routine to realize that the project has to grow faster, so the team develops a streamlined system which allows them to onboard hundreds of eager volunteers from Pitt and the surrounding community.

Throughout the spring term, Sheridan works on the project daily, running volunteer training sessions, managing social media posts, coordinating with volunteers and going through feedback forms from the users they had helped to book appointments. She has a favorite response from the hundreds of people who used VaccinatePA to find a vaccine. It came from someone who, after months of being unable to secure an appointment, finally found one through VaccinatePA.

“You are literally lifesavers and heroes!” they wrote.

VaccinatePA continues to have up-to-date, county-by-county information on vaccine availability, and the core team still meets and communicates virtually to review their progress and suggest ideas for improvement. Meanwhile, Sheridan still hasn’t met Wang or Goulazian in person. But as COVID-19 cases continue to recede across the state, that may change very soon.

 

This story is part of Pitt Magazines special Summer 21 digital issue.