Secret Tips to Book Your Vaccine Appointment Online

How your neighbors are getting spots in line, and how you can do the same.

Local residents check in before they are given the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at La Colaborativa in Chelsea, Massachusetts on February 16, 2021. (Photo by Joseph Prezioso / AFP)

It goes without saying, but ideally the state’s vaccine rollout would be smooth enough that no one needs tips or tricks to get a shot in a timely manner, let alone hacks. But until such time as things are operating perfectly, it’s helpful to know what your neighbors are doing to make their vaccine-scheduling process as painless as can be.

There are no doubt more workarounds brewing out there, and whether you ever find out about them—or figure them out for yourself—depends an awful lot on who you know, and how much free time you have on your hands.

So here’s what we’ve heard on the grapevine about what people are doing, and how you can do it, too.

Plan ahead

For one, plan ahead. Many frustrated users of the state’s “vaxfinder” website have said they’ve been mere keystrokes away from securing an appointment, only to watch it slip between their fingers. They’ll log into the website and select an open spot for a vaccination, but in the time it takes to click through seven separate pages of forms prompting them to explain whether and why they qualify, fill out a health questionnaire, enter insurance information, and so on, the spot will have vanished.

Boston colleague recommends a simple approach to this problem that he says worked for him: Peruse the website right now and go through the motions to familiarize yourself with the questions—which buttons to click, which boxes to check, and where and how to add an e-signature—which will speed things up when the time comes to actually book an appointment, and depending on what browser you use, it may train your computer to fill in some of the fields automatically. Doing this, he tells me, helped cut down on the lag time between starting the application process and securing his slot. From what we’ve heard, shaving even a few seconds off your time spent filling out forms can make a huge difference. Should we all have to compete in a digital fastest-fingers-in-the-west competition to get a vaccine? Certainly not, but that’s how it is right now and it’s better to be ready for that than not.

Use an autofill plugin

Another way to speed this process up even more is to more proactively train your computer to fill out the paperwork automatically with an autofill plug-in. For those unfamiliar with how to do this, one Massachusetts resident shared a helpful video tutorial (although in the video she herself says she hopes her advice will soon be out of date because having to do such a thing is fundamentally “not fair”).

Hopefully the timing issue will not persist for too long. State officials said late last week that they are working on an update to the website that will include a “wait room” function, which will allow users to hold their spot in line for several minutes while filling out the required documents.

Don’t want to hit refresh a million times while you wait for slots to open up? There’s a plug-in for that, too.

Thursday is go time

If you’re hoping to get a spot at a mass vaccination site like Fenway or Gillette, Thursday is when to make your move, as that’s when the next big batch of new slots is supposed to be posted to the website (last week, the first round went live at 8 a.m.). Get moving early in the day and be prepared to keep refreshing the website over and over again if need be. And get your clicking finger ready: Users have reported having to scroll through lists of vaccine sites on the web page looking for the telltale blue buttons indicating slots are available, and clicking them as quickly as possible.

Be willing to drive

If you can, be prepared to travel potentially long distances to get your shot. When logging into the website, don’t limit your search to sites nearby—scanning a larger geographic radius will increase the number of sites that will potentially have a spot open. If you’re trying to arrange an appointment at a pharmacy, that means potentially adjusting your zip code selection to check for availability in other areas further from your home.

Not everyone will be able to do this, of course, if they don’t have a car or don’t have the availability to spend an entire day journeying to a vaccine. But if you’re fortunate enough to have the flexibility, this is the move.

Monitor these websites

Vaccine appointments do pop up here and there. A community of web-savvy Massachusetts residents have begun creating websites aimed at getting the word out. Volunteer-driven websites include MACovidVaccines and VaccinateMA.

Set up alerts

Other volunteers have set up a text alert system for CVS and Walgreens appointments, and a Twitter bot programmed to tweet whenever new appointments open up. This resource page also includes some helpful links to other tools, including more sophisticated web monitoring tools, and plug-in that will hit refresh for you.

Use coding to get a leg up

A mole inside a Cambridge Public Schools email group also tells me parents have been swapping tips for the tech-savvy, among them a “bash script” that runs on something called wget and lynx that scrapes a vaccine website looking for the blue buttons that signify an open slot. (If you don’t understand what any of that means [and I definitely do not], this is not the hack for you).

Call 211

To help particularly non-tech-savvy people arrange their appointments (or at least the ones who aren’t parked in front of a computer all day), the state has set up a call center, which can be reached by dialing 211. Here are the hours for the call center, according to the state’s website:

  • Monday to Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
  • Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Find someone who can help you online

A separate initiative called Massachusetts COVID Vaccination Help—which is not an official state program and is run by volunteers—has also popped up in recent days. It links people looking for a vaccine with people who can help them navigate the system.

Go with an elderly relative

It’s a controversial program to say the least, but it is what it is. The state’s buddy system plan is still in place, meaning people who accompany residents over the age of 75 to their appointments are allowed to get a vaccine of their own, regardless of their age or whether they have health conditions. Do not be a jerk about this, and whatever you do, do not try to bribe the elderly on Craigslist to game the system.

Look out for scammers offering pre-registration

Scammers are, of course, trying to take advantage of people on the hunt for vaccines. Some health insurance providers have begun warning their members about phony websites offering to let people pre-register for vaccines. The state is not actually making pre-registration available right now.