New ways of allocating vaccination appointments: SMS against bureaucracy

Since November, Germany has been in lockdown and public life is almost at a standstill. An extension has just been announced by the government and there is no end in sight. Corona case numbers continue to rise and the German vaccination campaign is making slow progress. The vaccines are scarce, dates in demand. Millions of people are waiting to finally be vaccinated, but the processes are not fast enough. In some places, thawed vaccine doses are left, or appointments are canceled at short notice or not kept. Corona vaccination is causing debate in this country. Vaccination centers have to coordinate thousands of appointments per week. To speed things up, cities and municipalities are willing to come up with something.

The software startup LIT labs from Cologne has developed a program that regulates the allocation of vaccination appointments quickly and easily – via SMS. The software, called “Impfbrücke,” has been used as a pilot project in Duisburg since mid-February. Currently, people who want to be vaccinated have only two options for making appointments: the 116117 hotline or the online portal www.impfterminservice.de. It is not clear how many appointments are actually available at the vaccination centers. The telephones are occupied around the clock, reports over hour-long waiting loops point however to small chances of success to one of the desired dates. Those who do want to try on the phone have to maneuver through a series of questions beforehand. The situation is no different with the online portal.

Simplifying the process benefits vaccination centers. If the vaccine is already in the syringe, it has a shelf life of only a few hours.

Unused vaccine doses and canceled appointments must therefore be quickly reassigned to other people willing to be vaccinated.

Currently, people who are offered the AstraZeneca vaccine in particular often do not keep their vaccination appointments – in Cologne, according to a WDR report at the beginning of March, a good 40 percent of vaccination candidates canceled their appointment at short notice or did not show up at all and thus let it lapse.

With a software like “Impfbrücke,” such scenarios will hopefully soon be a thing of the past. Interested parties register with the vaccination center. All that needs to be entered into the system is the cell phone number and vaccination group in a privacy-protected system.

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“You have the opportunity for Corona vaccination…”

After the day’s business, sometimes there are vaccination doses left. With an appropriate search in the system (time window, number of vaccine doses, location), three people are then randomly selected. Certain criteria, such as the appropriate vaccination group, are taken into account here. Appointments are only given to people who were already registered. An SMS is then sent to the selected people. The request can be answered simply with “Yes”. Then the appointment was reserved for the person. Spontaneity is required here. After 30 minutes, three new people are contacted. In the pilot phase, only medical personnel are currently listed in the app’s data records. 

Approximately 15 vaccine doses are thawed out for free each day. Ten days after the project started, 125 vaccine doses could already be used for other people that would otherwise have ended up in the trash. Spontaneous appointments prevent the vaccine from being thrown away.

Scheduling appointments via SMS not only saves time, but also costs. There is no need anymore try to reach Vaccination candidates on the phone. It’s a quick and easy method that makes the process more efficient. This is evident from the response: there is usually a very quick response to the SMS.Message Networks, as an experienced mobile messaging provider, also guarantees secure and direct delivery of the SMS to the mobile devices of the vaccination candidates. The delivery meets the highest security and data protection requirements through technologies such as IPsec (Internet Protocol Security) and HTTPS (Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure). All SMS are reliably delivered via a direct connection to the messaging gateways of the mobile network operators and without any time delay.

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Successful crisis management and organized vaccination campaign

Countries such as Greece and Morocco are showing how things can be done differently. Greece has so far coped better with the pandemic than many other European countries thanks to early contact restrictions. Now the country is showing how to organize vaccinations. There are no queues outside the more than 700 vaccination centers.

So far, nearly 800,000 vaccine doses have been administered. 270,000 people have already received the second dose. This puts Greece in fourth place in the EU, according to Marios Themistokleous, secretary general of the Greek Ministry of Health. More than 30,000 people are vaccinated per day. There could be many more if there were enough supplies.

The government calls the vaccination campaign “Operation Freedom” and so far it is running smoothly. People are notified of their vaccination appointment by text message and can reschedule electronically if it doesn’t fit. The contact information comes from the system for electronic issuance of prescriptions, which was introduced early in the pandemic to ease the burden on doctors’ offices. Those who are not yet registered sign up online and then receive their vaccination appointment as well.

Older people who do not have Internet access can do so at their pharmacy or the nearest community center. 90 percent of the appointments are kept. A hotline, which drives many people to despair in Germany, does not exist in Greece. This would not fit in with the digitalized process.

Thanks to the smooth organization, only 0.5 percent of the precious vaccine doses expire and have to be disposed of, and Greece can vaccinate much faster.

Vaccination is also easy in Morocco: unlike in Germany, interested parties do not have to register on online portals or make an appointment via a telephone hotline. In the North African country, it is sufficient to send an SMS with the ID number, and a short time later those interested in vaccination will receive an appointment.

There is talk of one of the “most advanced vaccination systems” of our time. According to “The North Africa Post”, a total of 6.38 percent of the population in Morocco had been vaccinated against Covid-19 by the end of February – one of the highest rates in the world at that time. A full 2888 vaccination centers (in Germany there are just under 440) are available to the population. There is also no question of supply bottlenecks. Morocco has secured 66 million vaccine doses to immunize the population against COVID-19 as quickly as possible.

If more vaccine is delivered soon and more populations nationwide gradually become eligible for immunization, immunization management in Germany will face major challenges. How well these are met will likely also depend on the flexibility and resourcefulness of those responsible on the ground. Digitization, transparency, central planning and real-time monitoring of processes are more in demand than ever. The “vaccination bridge” system was developed within two months and, according to the developers, can be transferred to other cities within a few weeks. According to their own statements, the first inquiries have already been received.