Opinion » Letter From The Editor

The Signup Genius

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Have you met the Signup Genius?

He's not really a genius. He's an "online software tool for volunteer management and event planning  that lets you  save time with sign up sheets and schedules for schools, sports leagues, holiday events, and more!" Cool!

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Signup Genius is what the state of Tennessee uses for us to sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations. It's like using Eventbrite, only for death and disease and whatnot. The good news is that Signup Genius' platinum plan is only $44.99 a month! No doubt, Governor Bill Lee's crack health and science team got an even better deal.

Being in Tennessee, Shelby County is using Signup Genius, as well as a tool called VaxQueue, wherein users fill out an online form with contact information, age, and health conditions. Theoretically, these users will be contacted when a vaccination comes open. You should fill it out. It's like buying a lottery ticket at Mapco. It can't hurt, but don't count on a payoff. 

Judging from posts on social media (and speaking from personal experience), neither Signup Genius nor VaxQueue have been raging successes to this point. Tens of thousands of people in Memphis and Shelby County are still confused about how vaccine signup works. There have been long lines, short lines, last-minute cancellations, and sudden open cattle calls for shots.

What is clear is that people who have online savvy, personal connections, spare time, personal transportation, or a job that allows them to repeatedly check the Shelby County Health Department website for updates (and rush over to a vaccine site on a moment's notice), have a huge advantage in getting the vaccine into their arms.

Unsurprisingly, the advantages cited above mean poor and working-class folks and people of color are under-represented. The Hispanic populace, having been burned by ICE setting up outside community centers and courtrooms and marriage license offices, is distrustful of signing up for much of anything government-related, as are many in the African-American community. And no matter your race, blue-collar jobs usually don't let you jump off your forklift and go get a shot on a moment's notice. Outreach to — and vaccine access for — those communities needs to improve.

Toss in the anti-vaxxers, the COVID-hoaxers, and other assorted fruits and nuts in the white community, and a best-case scenario is that we get two-thirds of the population vaccinated by summer, according to some estimates I've read recently.

Since I'm eligible for the vaccine, I signed up with the Genius early this month and got an appointment in Whitehaven for a couple weeks later. A few minutes after signing up, my daughter called and said she just read online that there were open appointments that day at the Pipkin Building. I hung up, clicked on the Genius at 1:30 p.m. and got a 2 p.m. appointment! By 2:45 p.m., I had a shot in my arm. The nurse who administered it said they had 1,000 shots they needed to use that day and that I should "text or call anyone who can get over here." So I did just that, starting with my family and co-workers, and then my social media contacts. That's not the way vaccine distribution should work, to say the least. I canceled my Whitehaven appointment the next day.

Shelby County is not alone in having logistical problems with the vaccine. My 70-year-old brother in New Mexico signed up in that state's version of VaxQueue weeks ago and hasn't heard a thing. California has fallen way behind in getting the vaccine into arms. Many other states and cities are struggling. It's a huge job, one that various local and state governments are learning on the fly.

Being able to get vaccine appointments at some local Walgreens and Walmarts is a strong positive step for Memphis, certainly a better option for those without cars than the drive-thru process. Chicago and New York and other locales around the country are using apps like ZocDoc to streamline scheduling into one do-it-all operation. West Virginia is using locally owned pharmacies and having success. Many states are creating their own online signup tools. The CDC also offers a limited signup system called VAMS.

The reason there are so many different ways to sign up for and get a vaccine around the country is primarily because our current distribution systems were created from the bottom up — by states and cities and counties, mostly using private companies and app makers — rather than by a coordinated national system. We've been playing catch-up for months.

And it doesn't really take a stable Signup Genius to figure out why that's happening.

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