December 18, 2020

If you’re curious about where you might place in the coronavirus vaccine line, The New York Times’ Stuart A. Thompson has a few questions for you to answer first: your age, what county you live in, and whether you have any COVID-related health risks. A fourth question asks whether you’re a health care worker, essential worker, first responder, teacher, or none of the above.

I submitted my information and learned I was behind 17.4 million others who are at higher risk in Florida, where I live. Scroll down and there’s an illustration of masked people waiting in a very, very, very long line. There are first responders, older people in nursing homes with walkers, children, and more. The line snakes down until you reach a solid red silhouette that represents you. “If the line in Florida was represented by about 100 people, this is where you’d be standing,” the page told me. The place in line is an estimated guess based on real data.

The project is the brainchild of Thompson, a writer and editor in The Times’ Opinion section, who built on reporting he did in late April about the wait for a vaccine. In that piece, he described a vaccine as the “ultimate weapon” against the coronavirus. Honor Jones, the coronavirus editor in the newspaper’s Opinion section, later brought up returning to the idea and looking at vaccine distribution, Thompson said.

“Not that long ago, and probably still, people have a lot of optimism about how quickly things might change, and that wasn’t my impression from having worked on the vaccine timeline piece,” Thompson said in an interview with Poynter earlier this month. “There’s a lot of experts who are a little more pessimistic about how the following months might unfold.”

Some of the prevailing information, Thompson said, comes from two biased sources: the companies producing the vaccines, and the White House coronavirus task force.

“I wanted to bring people back to reality a little bit in terms of how complicated the rollout is going to be,” Thompson said. “The goal was really to give people some real hard numbers about the challenges that lie ahead. I think second to that is exposing some of the challenges when you have a limited supply and how many people will probably come before a healthy adult, for good reason.”

Thompson spoke to Poynter about his project on Dec. 8, the day the United Kingdom launched its nationwide coronavirus immunization campaign. Less than a week later, it would be the turn of medical workers in the United States.

To make this project possible, Thompson took information provided to him from a vaccine tool developed by Surgo Ventures in collaboration with Ariadne Labs, He used Surgo’s vaccine tool to calculate the number of people who will need a vaccine in each state and county, and where a reader might fit in that line. Surgo Ventures is a nonprofit focused on solving health and social problems, and Ariadne Labs is a joint center for health systems innovation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Dr. Sema Sgaier, a co-founder and the executive director of Surgo Ventures, said she certainly hopes the project doesn’t take away from the optimism of people seeking to be vaccinated soon. But it does bring them some realism.

Sgaier said the piece helps people understand that there’s going to be an order in which these vaccines are going to be distributed, and rightly so. “There are people that are more vulnerable, there are people that are being exposed at a higher rate, so it’s really important that those people get it first,” she said. “There is going to be a process that we will, as a collective, have to follow both from a decision-making perspective but also as a community. And we should respect that process.”

The tool, titled the Vaccine Allocation Planner for COVID-19, helps state and county decision-makers by estimating the size of these populations in every county of the U.S. and the percent vaccine achievable under various scenarios, according to a website of the tool. According to Bethany Hardy, director of communications for Surgo Ventures, percent vaccine achievable “indicates that the tool can provide the user with the percentage (or coverage) of the priority group (or groups) in each county that will be covered given the number of doses allocated.”

“For instance, if a state is allocated 50,000 doses (arbitrary figure) and the user chooses ‘High risk workers in health care facilities’ and ‘First responders,’ the tool will provide details about the percentage of those two priority groups that could be vaccinated in each county within that state given that 50,000 dose allotment,” Hardy wrote in an email to Poynter.

In The New York Times’ project, the order you find yourself in is one possibility, “combining proposals by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention alongside a fuller proposal by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.” The final order, Thompson, wrote, is not yet determined and depends on successful vaccines being adequately tested for every group.

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Amaris Castillo is a writing/research assistant for the NPR Public Editor and a contributor to Poynter.org. She’s also the creator of Bodega Stories and a…
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