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To Bridge The Digital Divide, Biden Administration Launches Vaccine Hotline

A medical professional from UofL Health administers a vaccine to a patient in their vehicle at University of Louisville Cardinal Stadium.
Jon Cherry
Getty Images
A medical professional from UofL Health administers a vaccine to a patient in their vehicle at University of Louisville Cardinal Stadium.

In the early months of the vaccination campaign, Internet access was essential to the search for a vaccination appointment.

But given that more than 14 million people in the U.S. lack reliable access to high speed Internet, technology has been a barrier for some Americans.

To help overcome this digital divide, the Biden administration has launched a new vaccination assistance hotline for people who would prefer to get information via telephone. It's part of the administration's push to get 70% of adults in the U.S. vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4.

"We know that millions of people in America don't have consistent access to broadband or are uncomfortable navigating the web," Dr. Marcella Nunez Smith, who chairs the Biden administration's COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. "Centering equity in our pandemic response, as the President has prioritized, requires us to meet people where they are," Nunez Smith wrote.

By dialing 1-800-232-0233 from any phone, people in search of a vaccine can opt to talk to a call center representative who can provide information about locations that offer the shots. Assistance is provided in English, Spanish and many additional languages. In addition, there's a TTY line for callers who are hearing impaired.

The hotline builds on digital vaccine-finder sites that have been up and running for weeks.

So far, the hotline has not been widely publicized to the public, though it has been operational for about a week. The administration's COVID team has shared information about the hotline with community leaders and members of Congress, including the Congressional Rural Caucus and Congressional Black Caucus, asking them to share the number with constituents. In addition, Nunez Smith shared information on the hotline with Made to Save, a group that is working to increase access and trust in the COVID-19 vaccines in communities of color, asking the group to spread the word about this new tool.

These outreach efforts have been targeted to reach communities who may be most likely to benefit from an additional option to locate a vaccination site, says Nunez Smith.

"The 1-800 number is in place to ensure that people who aren't online (as well as people who don't speak English or Spanish) have access to all the information they need to make the decision to keep themselves, loved ones and community safe by getting vaccinated," she added.

Earlier this spring, the administration announced the launch of the COVID-19 Community Corps, a grassroots network made up of groups all over the country aimed at encouraging Americans to get vaccinated.

At a Zoom event earlier this week with many of the Community Corps partners, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, along with two additional administration officials focused on COVID-19 response, Andy Slavitt and Mina Hsiang, presented an overview of the range of tools aimed at making vaccinations more convenient, including the new vaccination assistance hotline.

In addition to describing the 1-800-232-0233 hotline, additional tools to locate vaccination sites and availability (English) (Spanish) to search and find a vaccine near as well as a text-based tool.

And last week, the federal government established two text-only lines to send localized information about nearby sites. To access these lines, text a zip code to 438829 (GETVAX) for English or 822862 (VACUNA) for Spanish.

During the Zoom call, Murthy pointed to the goal of getting millions more shots in arms by July 4. "It will be challenging," he told the group. "We have to work harder. We have to have more conversations. We've got to make the vaccine more accessible."

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.