VIRA Chatbot Competition Awarded to Three U.S. Health Departments

Health departments will use custom AI chatbots to address COVID-19 misinformation

View original press release by NACCHO

Washington, DC—The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) has announced the first three winners of the VIRA X NACCHO competition. These selected health departments will receive a customized version of the Vaccine Information Resource Assistant (VIRA) chatbot, which delivers credible, and up-to-date answers to COVID-19 vaccine questions.

The first local public health department partners in this project are the Mecklenburg County Health Department (Charlotte, NC), the Immunization Coalition of Los Angeles County (CA), and Public Health Commission (Boston, MA). The organizations serve approximately 11 million people.

VIRA (VaxChat.org) is an artificial intelligence (AI)-based chatbot developed by the Johns Hopkins International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and IBM that answers hundreds of questions about COVID-19 vaccines in both Spanish and English. The VIRA X NACCHO competition featured VIRA Local, a customized version aimed at large U.S. health departments with active health communications reaching large populations, including Spanish-speaking community members, to receive custom versions of the VIRA chatbot. Departments eligible for VIRA Local included states and large cities with over 500,000 residents.

Through the VIRA Local project, IVAC works with qualifying health departments to create a custom branded version of the VIRA chatbot. Additionally, IVAC will support smaller health departments to embed the standard version of the VIRA chatbot on web pages to promote reliable and evidence-based COVID-19 information.

“Local health departments play a critical role in connecting their community to public health resources and services. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been key leaders in getting updated guidance and communications out to the public, responding to outbreaks, and administering vaccines,” said Lori Tremmel Freeman, NACCHO Chief Executive Officer. “The spread of misinformation has been a challenge and points to the need for factual and consistent messaging in real time that VIRA X NACCHO can provide.”

“VIRA uses natural language processing to understand and respond to community needs for health information. It is an incredibly powerful tool that can assist health departments in their fight against misinformation to keep our communities safe through information tailored to their communities,” said Smisha Agarwal, PhD, MBA, MPH, Executive Director of the Center for Global Digital Health Innovations at the Bloomberg School and Assistant Professor at IVAC.

The three winners will deploy VIRA in unique and creative outreach activities to address COVID-19 vaccine questions and concerns. The Immunization Coalition of Los Angeles plans to engage students and their caregivers in district schools to combat misinformation, including through town halls and other community events. In Charlotte, NC, Mecklenburg County Department of Health will advertise the localized chatbot in newspaper, radio, and television ads.

“We are excited to launch VIRA to help combat COVID-19 misinformation with easy-to-access, evidence-based responses,” said Tracey Veal, DrPH, MBA, of the Immunization Coalition of Los Angeles County. “VIRA is a critical component of COVID-19 resources for Los Angeles consumers in general and specifically for Unified School District, the second largest school system in the nation.”

NACCHO widely promoted the competition to its members, comprised of nearly 3,000 public health departments across the U.S. The VIRA X NACCHO partnership attracted 42 applications from 28 states. Health department applications detailed how outreach strategies would enable the chatbot to increase community access to accessible information about COVID-19 vaccine questions. Health departments participating in VIRA Local will leverage frontline community teams to ensure adequate community reach.

Additional VIRA Local partners will be announced in the coming months. Meanwhile, IVAC will support up to 36 health departments in 15 states to embed VIRA Standard on their website, with health departments using digital media toolkits, flyers, and other resources to inform community members about the tool.

VIRA’s team at the Bloomberg School includes science communicators and vaccine scientists who continually review the latest evidence. The team works closely with domestic and international health agencies to quickly adjust VIRA’s responses to reflect the dynamic nature of COVID-19 vaccine evidence and policy. VIRA is accessible at VaxChat.org and via WhatsApp at 1-410-401-0306. VIRA supporters include IBM Research, Bloomberg Philanthropies – Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Training Initiative, Meta, the Johnson & Johnson Foundation, and Vonage.

Explore the custom chatbot for Immunization Coalition of Los Angeles County at immunizelac.org/; Mecklenburg County Department of Health at mecknc.gov/HealthDepartment/Pages/default.aspx; Boston will launch in the coming days.

The National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) represents the nation’s nearly 3,000 local governmental health departments. These city, county, metropolitan, district, and tribal departments work every day to protect and promote health and well-being for all people in their communities. For more information about NACCHO, please visit www.naccho.org.