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The UB-developed portal served as a one-stop website listing and linking visitors to sites and facilities offering COVID-19 vaccines in five Western New York counties
By the University at Buffalo
The WNY Vaccine Hound website, developed by the University at Buffalo, is shutting down at month’s end after a nearly two-year presence online that helped tens of thousands of people get COVID-19 vaccinations, especially in the early rollout stages of the immunization campaign when the vaccine was still relatively scarce in the face of overwhelming demand.
UB faculty, staff and students built and launched the site in March 2021, with assistance from the UB information technology group and university communications.
Vaccine Hound served as a one-stop portal, linked to by area media, health care providers, school districts and others, that displayed vaccination appointment openings and provided links that allowed visitors to confirm their appointments in Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Niagara and Erie counties.
“This is a shining example of how we can do mighty things at UB,” said Natalie Simpson, Ph.D., chair of operations management and strategy in the School of Management. “I’m very proud of what we did as a university and how quickly we were able to turn an idea into a reality that became such an important community resource.”
Vaccine Hound’s origins began with Simpson’s work on behalf of the university with the Western New York vaccination hub, a group led by then-Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, and co-led at the local level by Catholic Health, Kaleida Health and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. Simpson recognized through her work with the group that vaccine information and availability could quickly become confusing.
“Looking at similar portals developed in other places that directed users to vaccination sites, I realized that something similar could be developed by UB,” she said.
Simpson then approached Sanjukta Das Smith, Ph.D., chair of the department of management science and systems, about the opportunity to harness UB talent for the project.
Das Smith quickly identified the team to fix that problem: Dominic Sellitto, clinical assistant professor of management science and systems in the UB School of Management and team leader, along with Anthony Guarnieri, Aditi Samiran Katti and Mayuri Garg, graduate students in the School of Management’s master of science in management information systems program. Soon after, the team began building the site, designing its user interface and developing the flexibility necessary to provide continually updated information.
Vaccine Hound was live a few weeks later, with Sellitto setting the project’s sprinter’s pace by putting the initial hosting expense on his personal credit card.
“To get the site up and running we had to make decisions quickly,” Sellitto said. “It was hard to tell whether Vaccine Hound would grow at the time. Our initial mantra was that, if we could reduce stress and connect just one person with a vaccine, the whole project would be worthwhile.”
Early predictions on site traffic ran in the thousands of unique visits. There was also more modest talk among team members anticipating that the portal would materialize more as a university resource than a wider community hub.
But a confluence of factors soon increased the site’s actual number of visitors to proportions far beyond what Sellitto and Simpson had imagined.
Just as Vaccine Hound was about to go live, the governor’s office expanded eligibility for the vaccine. Local media covered the announcement extensively, often including Vaccine Hound’s address in their stories, sending page views rocketing from zero to 295,000 in less than one day.
“Just hold together; just hold together,” Simpson remembered saying, invoking a measure of hope to fortify Vaccine Hound’s sound design.
Site integrity was critical, not only in the moment, but for the sake of Vaccine Hound’s reputation, according to Sellitto.
“We were unbelievably worried,” he said. “If the site crawled to a halt, we’d lose folks in droves and likely never get them back, which would have destroyed the value proposition of the platform.
“That first week was an around the clock effort to make sure that the site could handle the volume.”
The site did hold together, and it did handle the volume, logging roughly 790,000 page views over its lifespan and about 22,000 daily hits during its infancy in April 2021.
Sellitto and Simpson continued to tend Vaccine Hound throughout the two years that followed the opening rush, as boosters and other rollouts renewed traffic on the site. Nonetheless, visitor numbers have declined in recent months, making Feb. 28 a logical day to conclude the Vaccine Hound story, when UB’s annual contract with the site’s hosting service expires.
“I won’t pretend it wasn’t stressful to get it launched and maintain it, but it was a labor of love that will forever remain one of the highlights of my professional life,” Sellitto said.