'The Alabama loophole': Tech tricks used to get vaccine appointments

Photo of Jordan Fenster
A nurse prepares the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during the grand opening of the COVID-19 vaccine

A nurse prepares the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during the grand opening of the COVID-19 vaccine "super site" at Silicon Harbor in Stamford, Conn. Monday, March 15, 2021. The site came to fruition through a partnership between the City of Stamford, Stamford Health, and BLT. The South End site hopes to vaccinate up to an additional 7,000 people per week.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media

When Matthew Brooks became eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19, he used what some people call the “Alabama loophole.”

Logging on to CVS’ website as a Connecticut resident revealed no available appointments. But there was availability in the state when the Ridgefield resident pretended to be from Alabama, and then changed the search area to a Connecticut ZIP code at the last moment.

“It is a simple website workaround that didn't harm anyone,” he said. “It just helped those who were informed get a slight edge in the ‘midnight rush’ when new appointments are uploaded.”

While demand remains high for the vaccine, people are turning to tricks and loopholes in the system to find appointments in a competitive space where new slots are quickly booked. But it remains unclear how many people are taking these efforts.

A few days after booking his appointment CVS, Brooks helped his sister get an appointment using a Yale New Haven Health system link intended for people with severe medical conditions.

That link, like another that Yale had dedicated for teachers, allowed Connecticut residents to access appointments that might not otherwise be available.

“Without hesitation I booked one in Greenwich, so as to not lose the chance for an appointment,” Brooks said.

Amy Arutt said her trick if you’re looking to reschedule “is to find your original confirmation.”

“Click your personal unique link to manage your appointment,” she said. “The options are tenfold what there is available online, and also makes sure you get the right brand vaccine. Most people are not using this method at all, and just going online to the regular scheduling page.”

Those aren’t the only technological tricks people are using to get vaccine appointments. ShopRite reportedly allowed anyone to book appointments before eligibility was expanded. Adjusting the web address supposedly allows Stop & Shop users to get around limits.

These loopholes are shared on social media and exploited until the system is fixed.

“It’s hard to say how many people are actually trying to cut the line,” said Ohm Deshpande, vice president for population health and a physician leader for Yale-New Haven Health’s vaccination program. “I think they’re not actually that many.”

Yale did not cancel appointments when they were made using links dedicated for specific groups, with the exception of appointments made by people who live out of state.

The goal of reaching population immunity is far too important, Deshpande said, and the few people who “cut the line” are “not going to materially make a difference.”

There are also problems with asking people to prove they are teachers or have one of the five preexisting conditions the state said would qualify a resident to get to the front of the line.

“A lot of this is riding on self-attestations,” Desphande said.

But Yale is moving away from dedicated links, and removing those links as they get shared on social media.

“Our desire has been not to use preferred links,” Deshpande said. “They’re too easy to abuse.”

State Department of Public Health spokesperson Maura Fitzgerald said she’s not sure the “Alabama loophole” is real. It may just be a trick of the mind. She actually gave it a shot but to no avail.

“I heard about the Alabama thing on Facebook and tried it myself when I was trying to get my appointment,” she said. “I didn't find any vaccine appointments in Connecticut by selecting Alabama and then entering Connecticut ZIP codes.”

Fitzgerald’s guess is that tricks like that are simply a result of the continuously fluctuating amount of available doses.

“I figured it was an urban legend,” she said. “If people are getting appointments that way, my assumption is that they are just coincidentally going in when the Connecticut stores have added appointments to their system or they are grabbing appointments added back into the system when people cancel appointments.”

As for why these exploits pop up, Deshpande said it has a lot to do with the speed at which these systems were built, and the sheer numbers of people who are using them. They’ve been trying, he said, to “not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“We’ve had to build stuff that we’ve never done before,” he said.