Website crashes mar early coronavirus vaccine rollouts

Website crashes and tech glitches are afflicting the U.S. coronavirus vaccine rollout that is already behind schedule based on the goals the Trump administration set out.

Several counties in Florida experienced delays and website crashes on Monday, and the largest county in Texas had to take its website down as ineligible residents tried to book slots.

The issues surrounding booking COVID-19 vaccinations comes as the number of cases across the country spikes. Meanwhile, just about a quarter of the 20 million Americans the Trump administration set out to vaccinate by the end of the year have received the first of their two doses.

“Clearly we do not want technological glitches to get in the way to fully implement a national vaccination plan,” Nicol Turner Lee, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, told The Hill.

The issues, she said, are reminiscent of the website issues experienced during the ObamaCare rollout.

“I think [the] government needs to really think about how to overhaul systems so it can accommodate what has essentially become the new normal, which is online,” Lee added.

In Florida, at the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), seniors over the age of 65 are eligible to receive the vaccine, creating high demand across the state.

At least two Florida counties, Hillsborough and Pinellas, on Tuesday shifted to only book appointments by phone after overwhelming demand crashed their websites.

Hillsborough County officials said the web portal was inefficient in booking appointments Monday due to high demand, causing the county to shut it down by the end of the day. By Tuesday, the county opted instead to triple the number of agents answering phone lines and temporarily shift all vaccine bookings by phone.

The goal is still to bring back a web portal as the county continues its vaccine rollout to further residents, a county official told The Hill.

The Department of Health in Pinellas County on Tuesday said it created a “temporary registration method” that will be used until a permanent solution is brought online. The county is booking appointments for people aged 65 and older using a phone line, but warned of long wait times due to high demand. By Tuesday afternoon, the county said it had scheduled all of its existing stocks of vaccines and would open the reservation system when it receives more doses.

The shift to phone bookings came after Pinellas County on Monday acknowledged issues with the website crashing or having delays.

In Broward County, Fla., the health department also tweeted warnings over the weekend about its website crashing.

The tech issues around booking vaccines is in contrast with how swiftly the world has shifted to virtual accommodations in other areas over the last 10 months, Turner Lee said.

“We’ve done a tremendous job keeping people somewhat connected during the pandemic for shopping and education, but we’re not doing a really good job when it comes to the deployment of technology when it comes to public goods,” Turner Lee said.

“My heart is breaking for these seniors,” she added.

In Harris County, Texas, a website for vaccination bookings was taken down last week after offering appointments for residents who do not yet qualify for a vaccine by state guidelines.

The county was only given a few thousand vaccines to administer, with the vast majority in the area being administered through large hospitals, according to county officials. The appointments were being scheduled through a private link for eligible residents, but the link was shared with a wider net of people not initially invited and was then taken down.

By the time the website had been taken down, the county had reached its capacity of available vaccines and the vast majority went to eligible residents, a county official said. The registration link has since been updated for clarity on eligibility and with additional checks in place.

Leah Vriesman, the executive director of Executive Education Programs in Health Policy and Management at UCLA, said the booking challenges are not a new hurdle — even within the course of the pandemic.

“If we succeeded with [coronavirus] testing — and through so many lessons learned with how to ramp up doing thousands and thousands of tests a day — to me the analogy is we should be doing the same thing with the vaccine,” Vriesman said.

“The opportunity to get a test is no different than the opportunity to get a vaccine,” she added.  “We should be screened and then told where to go and what time to go and then all be recorded because everyone needs a second dose, and so you have to be on record that you received it.”

But the burden shouldn’t necessarily be falling on local health departments and providers who may not be able to handle the level of traffic that will follow the high demand, she added.

“That’s too much to put on local health departments, [that’s] not how testing has worked smoothly,” she said. 

Elsewhere in Florida, counties are using the website Eventbrite, often used for booking concert tickets, to schedule vaccine appointments. Manatee, Nassau, Collier, Sarasota, Flager and Pasco have all decided to use the website for vaccination bookings, Vox reported.

But there are also fake Eventbrite accounts popping up charging people for fake coronavirus vaccine appointments, the Pinellas County health department warned.

“The ONLY way to register at this time is by visiting our website at http://pinellas.floridahealth. gov or calling 727-824-6900,” the department tweeted. “Someone created a FAKE Eventbrite account to register for the COVID-19 vaccination. You should NOT be charged to register. Registration is FREE.”

Turner Lee also warned against rollouts that solely rely on internet access, which could alienate vulnerable communities especially given the digital divide highlighted during the course of the pandemic.

She also suggested that private-sector companies partner with states or localities to help create the systems needed as rollouts continue.

“We need this to be everyone’s priority,” Turner Lee said. 

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Ron DeSantis Vaccine vaccine rollout Website

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