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Imagine a formula that could score each American’s unique risk of dying of COVID-19. People’s odds would determine their exact number in line for a vaccine.
The algorithm would take into account your age, your race, your full medical history and every one of your health insurance claims. It would marry that information with data about vaccine inventories and health care locations. You’d get an email, a text, or a phone call the week before your vaccine appointment telling you where and when to show up. If you turned down the shot, the next in line would take your spot.
The pandemic has brought such an approach far closer to reality than many might guess. Hospital groups in California, Boston, St. Louis and the Upper Midwest used medical records to score members’ risk of death when choosing who got first priority for shots, vaccine information, treatment or extra support.
It’s hard to know whether Americans would embrace a vaccine algorithm that tapped into some of their most personal information. Or whether people would accept a formula’s determination of who was at most risk of dying, blind to other values such as keeping teachers from missing work due to illness.
But if these objections could be overcome, some experts say it’s possible that the U.S. could save tens of thousands of lives during the next pandemic with a widespread system of vaccine microtargeting.

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About Aleszu Bajak:

Aleszu Bajak manages the School of Journalism’s Media Innovation and Media Advocacy graduate programs and teaches courses in journalism, coding and data visualization. He is a freelance science and data journalist and editor of, an under the hood guide to digital storytelling from the journalism school. Aleszu is a faculty affiliate with Northeastern’s Global Resilience Institute and an affiliate of the NU Lab for Texts, Maps, and Networks.

In 2016, he was a founding senior writer at Undark, a magazine exploring the intersection of science and society based at the Knight Science Journalism Program at M.I.T., a fellowship he was awarded in 2013 where he explored the interface between journalists, designers and developers.

Bajak has been a freelance reporter in Latin America, a producer for the public radio show Science Friday, the founding editor of Esquire Classic, and once upon a time worked in the gene therapy department at Weill Cornell. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, the Boston Globe magazine, MIT Technology Review, Nature, Science, New Scientist, and Guernica, among other outlets.