An Insider’s Guide to Getting a Vaccine Appointment in Massachusetts
Here's how to navigate the different methods of getting your coronavirus vaccine.
As of Monday, April 19, everyone in Massachusetts over the age of 16 will be eligible for a coronavirus vaccine. But as everyone who has watched the vaccine rollout play out over the past several months knows, appointments for one of the coveted shots have not been easy to come by. Sure, you can always add your name to the state’s pre-registration system and wait for your turn for a shot at a mass vaccination site (if you haven’t done that already, stop reading and do it right now!). Most vaccine slots are being filled this way, and all available evidence suggests this process is going relatively smoothly, as long as you’re willing to wait to get assigned a slot.
This is not, however, the only way to get yourself a vaccine. Thousands of vaccine appointments are arranged in Massachusetts each day at a growing network of smaller facilities. You can get an appointment at pharmacies, local clinics, grocery stores, and neighborhood health centers. Taking this route instead of the mass vax site path is a much more chaotic system, and instead of rewarding patience, it tends to reward cunning, preparation, and technological know-how.
The set-up has inspired several groups of volunteers to form up to help people get appointments by mastering the tips and tricks of navigating all these different systems. “It’s not rocket science,” says Jessica Kos, who launched the popular Vaccine Hunters/Angels Facebook group, which now boasts more than 15,000 members, many of whom get a kick out of helping people line up their shots. “People are, like, addicted to it. I’m not kidding. It’s fun.”
So if you’re in a hurry to get vaccinated, and you’re willing to put in some extra work, follow along for our newly updated guide packed with insider tips on how to book an appointment ASAP, so you can be on your way to post-vaccination bliss in no time.
The state’s preregistration site will put you in line for a shot at one of the state’s mass vaccination sites. There is no way to know how long you’ll have to wait, given demand for vaccines still vastly outweighs supply. But this is far and away the easiest way to guarantee you’ll get a vaccine at some point.
Earlier on in the rollout, only people who were eligible for the vaccine in the most recent phase were being assigned slots, but now that everyone qualifies, it will operate more like a true lottery system. Gov. Baker has said previously that the preregistration system would operate on a first-come-first-served basis, so people who pre-registered several weeks ago may have an advantage over people who just recently added their names to the list.
Learn the lay of the land
Not content to sit and wait? There are plenty of other non-mass vaccination sites where you may be able to score a shot. This is where things get tricky, and where strategy really comes into play.
Search on the state’s Vaxfinder website or vaccine site map to find out which vaccination sites are near where you live or work, and factor in how far you’re willing to drive. These resources are not always totally up to date, so double check pharmacy websites directly. Also, some appointment hunters have reported finding success using an app called Solv to track down clinics that state tools might have missed.
Depending on where you live, there may be multiple options, be it a pharmacy, a neighborhood health center, a regional collaborative, or some other site. Once you have a handle on this, you’ll know which websites to check regularly and will be able to familiarize yourself with how they work. Then, when the time comes, get ready to hit “refresh” over and over until a spot opens up.
If you did this already several weeks ago, you might want to do it again, as new sites appear to be opening every week.
Know the rules
Once you’ve done that, study the rules. Many of these sites have restrictions, which, depending on where you live, can work to your advantage. Access to a neighborhood health center may be limited to people who live in certain zip codes, for example, meaning your odds of getting a slot are better if you live there.
Some sites may require you to set up an account with a medical records app like Zocdoc or myChart. To sign up for a shot at Walgreens, you’ll need to register for a Walgreens.com account. If you live near one of these sites and hope to get a vaccine there, plan ahead by creating those accounts now and save valuable time when slots open up.
Have your health information ready
The latest update to the vaccine registration system gave people more time to fill out forms online, but it’s not infinite. Typically, you’ll only have 15 minutes to enter information like your health insurance (vaccines are free, but you’ll still be asked for the info) before your application times out (CVS gives you 30 minutes).
Don’t rely solely on the Vaxfinder
The state’s website has not always been entirely up to date, and some vaccine hunters find it moves more sluggishly than the websites run by the vaccine distribution sites themselves. Cut out the middleman and go straight to the source.
Use the zip code search trick
If you’re searching a website for vaccine clinics nearby, be sure to enter it in multiple forms. By that I mean, enter your zip code, but also the name of your city, or different combinations of the two. Sometimes doing so in one way yields more results than another. It’s not clear why this works, but often it does.
Track when new vaccine slots “drop”
Rastegayeva says she and her team have begun noticing patterns in when vaccine appointments are made available, which insiders are now calling “drops.” CVS, for example, tends to drop new vaccine slots in the middle of the night, from 12-1 a.m., and from 4-5 a.m. Walgreens tends to drop theirs around 7 a.m.
These are not hard and fast rules. Volunteer vaccine hunters we’ve spoken with have reported seeing big batches of appointments drop at 9 a.m. at some pharmacies, for example.
Missed a drop? Wait 15 minutes
Here’s another trend volunteers have noticed: Often a first round of vaccine slots will quickly disappear on a booking website, as hundreds or even thousands of people rush to gobble them up. But then roughly 15 minutes later, as the online applications time out, many of those slots reappear. So vaccine hunters would do well to keep their browsers open to the page where slots are selected, and refresh the page at around the 15 minute mark after each drop.
Twitter alerts are your friend
Social media accounts are now also tracking these “drops” and letting followers know when new appointments appear. The @VaccineTime Twitter account is a must-follow (you can also set up Twitter alerts for the account, so your phone will buzz whenever it tweets out new available appointment information). Other Twitter bots include @CVSvaccineMA, which tracks appointments at CVS, and @ValleyVax, which focuses on the Pioneer Valley.
When batches of appointments go live, be ready to act fast, because plenty of people follow these accounts now, so they go quickly.
There is also the Vaccine Hunters / Angels Facebook page, a growing community where users share whatever information they can. Admins have also offered to help users book vaccines if need be.
So are email alerts
Don’t use Twitter? MA Covid Vaccine Finder also has an email list that also sends out updates when new slots are posted.
Join a standby list
A service called Dr. B has emerged as a way to help vaccine sites find willing recipients in case excess doses are at risk of going to waste. Add your name here.
Use multiple devices
That’s how the pros do it, anyway. Firing up multiple laptops or phones at the same time can increase your odds of snagging a spot before they disappear.
Look out for walk-in clinics
Some clinics, in an effort to reach underserved communities, have begun offering vaccines on a walk-in basis, no appointment necessary. One such clinic, announced by the Boston Public Health Commission, was held at the Plumbers Union Hall in Dorchester on Wednesday, April 14.
Prepare for “Red Sox Week” at the Hynes Convention Center
During “Red Sox Week” at the Hynes April 19-April 25, 20,000 doses will be set aside specifically for residents of 20 communities hit hardest by the virus. The event will be staffed with both English and Spanish-speakers, and is being run by nonprofits with a foothold in those communities.
Don’t take help that isn’t for you
Some tips just aren’t meant for you. For example, Boston Medical Center recently had to cancel a batch of appointments scheduled using a link that was only meant to be used internally to help needy Bostonians, but somehow made it out to the public.
Veterans can get their shots at the VA
As part of a new federal program, veterans and their spouses can get vaccinated at VA centers. The VA has asked any interested veterans to fill out an application here.
Desperate? Ask the internet for help
These online communities of vaccine hunters have gotten incredibly good at tracking down appointments for people. If you or someone you know is older, or especially vulnerable, there are now countless keyboard warriors who are eager to help. For people with the most severe need, Kos, of the Vaccine Hunters/Angels group says, “If you post on our page, in minutes we’ll get you an appointment,” she says. “There’s always a way.”
The nonprofit Massachusetts Covid Vaccination Help is another valuable resource. Its volunteers have helped nearly 20,000 people book appointments and counting.
Follow these websites and social media accounts
You can also add these websites to your bookmarks and check them regularly:
Watch out for scams
Remember: At no point in the vaccine appointment booking process will anyone ask you for your social security number. In fact, you need very little documentation to book an appointment. You will be asked for health insurance information, but even that isn’t necessary to get your (totally free) shot.
Book your second appointment ASAP
Many people who’ve managed to get their first vaccine have had difficulty lining up the second dose required by the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. To avoid having to scramble yet again to find a spot in line, be sure to arrange your second vaccine appointment ahead of time. If you don’t have a second shot lined up, schedule it while you’re still at the site where you got the first one.
Need a second shot? Look to CVS
If you got your first shot, and for some reason don’t have a second shot scheduled, CVS can help. The pharmacy has a separate fast lane for people who need to need the follow-up dose. People who are due for the second shot in 48 hours or less are pushed to the front of the line, vaccine hunters tell us.
Make a phone call
People who are really struggling to book an appointment can call for help by dialing 2-1-1. Many hospitals, including Boston Medical Center, are also maintaining “call lists” for people who are at extreme risk and have yet to get a vaccine.
Boston officials have also set up an Equity in Vaccine Access line designed to help seniors and people of color. You can reach it at 617-635-5555.
Use the home-bound vaccination program
If you or a loved one would find it very difficult to get to a clinic without assistance, the state has also partnered with local boards of health to administer shots inside patients’ homes. You can find details about how that works here. There may be some temporary disruptions to this program due to a precautionary pause on the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which was favored by providers serving hard to reach areas because it’s easier to transport and store than the other shots in use.