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With a resume that includes Microsoft, Amazon and the shipping powerhouse Convoy, Seattle’s Greg Akselrod is hardwired for data. And the numbers around the support for the COVID-19 vaccine troubled him.
Multiple polls show about half of Americans are onboard for getting inoculated against the virus, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease scientist, says we need to reach a rate of 75-85% to achieve herd immunity and protect the public. Without that, people who medically cannot get the vaccine remain at risk.
“I was like, ‘Oh crap, I’ve got a metric and I need to move it,’” Akselrod said.
Given the high rates of distrust in government, Akselrod figured a better approach for boosting confidence and vaccination rates would be through grassroots social signaling — by empowering friends and family to show their support. But because no one can tell at a glance if someone is vaccinated, he wanted to make it easily visible in the way “I voted” stickers signal election participation.
His solution? Bright blue silicone bracelets akin to the the yellow ones that became iconic for the Livestrong cancer-fighting campaign.
Akselrod is partnering with Ian Mikutel, a former Microsoft colleague, and the two have launched a startup called VacSeen to produce and distribute the pro-vaccine bracelets. They’re embossed with the VacSeen name and logo on one side and the words “Band Together” on the other.
They launched a VacSeen Kickstarter campaign to build awareness and momentum. They’ve already doubled their $1,000 goal with more than three weeks to go.
The general concept makes sense to Aaron Katz, principal lecturer emeritus for the University of Washington’s School of Public Health.
“Letting people know that I’ve got the vaccine, I took that step to protect myself and neighbors and community, that’s a really good thing,” Katz said. “It’s a good idea.”
While there’s enthusiasm about the COVID vaccines — Pfizer began shipping its first doses across the U.S. on Monday and the government is expected to green light Moderna’s vaccine on Friday — the focus has been on approving and administering the vaccines. There has been less attention paid to sharing who’s getting inoculated.
“This is the moment everyone is realizing that it feels like there’s something missing,” Akselrod said.
The vaccine shipments to healthcare providers include vaccine record pocket cards. When someone gets a shot, that person receives a card with information on the vaccine and when to get the second dose. In Washington, people can use the card as vaccination proof or record the inoculation details in the state’s existing digital database, the Immunization Information System.
Some people are interested in creating a sort of digital passport that people could access on their phones to prove to employers, airlines or event organizers, for example, that they are vaccinated.
Katz wondered if there could be an anonymous, digital verification solution similar to the infection notification apps such as Washington’s WA Notify. For the infection app, health officials provide people who have tested positive for COVID a code that’s received by other devices running the app.
The bracelets will serve a different purpose and aren’t meant to be verifiable, rock solid proof of vaccination. The VacSeen founders ask that people will only wear the bands if they have been fully vaccinated, but understand that some people will wear the bracelet anyhow. They compared it to a wedding band — few people are going to pose as married and wear one when they’re not, but some will.
While the vaccine is highly effective in preventing sickness from COVID, researchers do not yet know if vaccinated people can still become infected and transmit the virus to others. Scientists at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and elsewhere are looking at how to answer this important question.
With people receiving the first doses this week, they’ll receive their second inoculations in three or four weeks. Akselrod and Mikutel plan to start shipping bracelets in early January. They haven’t released a final price and are working on different modes of shipping to keep costs and packaging to a minimum. They plan to sell the bracelets to individuals, healthcare providers, employers and others.
VacSeen is donating half of the profits to United Nation’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for WHO.
Akselrod, a principal product manager at Convoy, and Mikutel, a principal product manager at Microsoft, teamed up on the project in mid November. They’ve been running their plan past friends in healthcare and colleagues in tech leadership. The feedback, they said, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“This is real life for everybody right now,” Mikutel said. People are eager for a widespread solution to this problem.
After research suggested no one else was offering a product like this, Akselrod began looking for a manufacturer and found no domestic producers of silicone bracelets. He put out a request on China’s Alibaba platform and received responses from dozens of manufacturers. The team is trying to automate as many of the business functions as possible, using fulfillment platforms and digital tools to manage advertising. VacSeen launched the Kickstarter a bit sooner than planned. When Steven Sinofsky, a former president at Microsoft, recently tweeted a query about a signaling strategy, they jumped in to promote their startup.
Following an Amazon ethos, the duo has focused only on solutions that can scale, which makes sense given the potential size of their market: if 80% of Americans need to be vaccinated, that’s some 262 million wrists.
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News – Two Seattle techies create bracelets to let people signal they’re vaccinated against COVID-19