EXPLAINER: Meet the vaccine appointment bots, and their foes

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FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2021 file photo, people wait in line for the COVID-19 vaccine in Paterson, N.J. Having trouble booking a COVID-19 vaccine appointment online? Some people have turned to social media vaccine bots that scan the patchwork of vaccination websites and send alerts when a clinic is ready to book new patients. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Having trouble scoring a COVID-19 vaccine appointment? You’re not alone. To cope, some people are turning to bots that scan overwhelmed websites and send alerts on social media when slots open up.

They've provided relief to families helping older relatives find scarce appointments. But not all public health officials think they're a good idea.

In rural Buckland, Massachusetts, two hours west of Boston, a vaccine clinic canceled a day of appointments after learning that out-of-towners scooped up almost all of them in minutes thanks to a Twitter alert. In parts of New Jersey, health officials added steps to block bots, which they say favor the tech-savvy.

WHAT IS A VACCINE BOT?

Bots — basically autonomous programs on the web — have emerged amid widespread frustration with the online world of vaccine appointments.

Though the situations vary by state, people often have to check multiple provider sites for available appointments. Weeks after the rollout began, demand for vaccines continues to outweigh supply, complicating the search even for eligible people as they refresh appointment sites to score a slot. When a coveted opening does appear, many find it can vanish midway through the booking.

The most notable bots scan vaccine provider websites to detect changes, which could mean a clinic is adding new appointments. The bots are often overseen by humans, who then post alerts of the openings using Twitter or text notifications.

A second type that's more worrisome to health officials are “scalper” bots that could automatically book appointments, potentially to offer them up for sale. So far, there's little evidence scalper bots are taking appointments.