Vaccine portals address tech problems as states begin wider sign-ups


Local governments and technology companies are scrambling to fix the glitch-filled registration portals that have slowed down the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine.

Washington, D.C.’s sign-up system has attracted significant attention over its failures. For several weeks in a row, residents have been greeted with glitches, failed captcha codes and system errors when trying to schedule appointments to get a potentially life-saving dose.

“The failures in D.C.’s vaccine distribution system have been painful for our residents,” D.C. Councilmember Janeese Lewis George (D) told The Hill.

“They have caused a lot of confusion and exacerbated the anxiety that many have been experiencing due to the pandemic,” she added in a statement. “D.C.’s messaging on the vaccine encourages all adult residents to be vaccinated but the system has been actively discouraging many from doing so.”

D.C.’s vaccine portal is not unique in its technical failures. But across the country, there are signs of improvement as new systems launch and volunteers step up. Government officials see signs of hope just in time for more vaccines to become available and states to lower eligibility requirements.

Local officials in D.C. hope that a new sign-up system launching Wednesday could alleviate many of the problems with the previous portal.

Residents will now be able to register once and then be contacted via email or phone when they can make an appointment.

“It basically takes a bit of the scramble out of things,” Christina Henderson, a Democratic D.C. councilmember, told The Hill in an interview.

“Our hope is that this makes it smoother for folks,” she added, noting that with more than 100,000 residents now eligible to be vaccinated, the first-come, first-served window for limited slots had “caused anxiety for a process already anxiety-ridden.”

The new system is being launched in partnership with Microsoft, which also worked on the earlier portal. The software giant acknowledged in a joint statement with D.C.’s government that efforts on the first sign-up system fell short.

In a statement to The Hill, a Microsoft spokesperson said that “addressing any delay in getting yourself, loved ones, and our communities vaccinated is of the utmost importance.”

“We continue to work diligently with governments, healthcare providers and technology partners to ensure vaccine management systems are operational at all levels,” the spokesperson added.

Mani Sundaram, executive vice president and chief information officer at Akamai, a company working with local governments to make vaccine websites more efficient, told The Hill that vaccine portal sites have been “getting better” since the start of the rollout late last year.

“I think a lot of the counties and states are now realizing that they have to put some more work into their website,” said Sundaram, who previously worked with private companies to help them prepare for traffic surges around events like Black Friday sales or product launches.

“It’s been a crash course for many, many public employees,” Sundaram said.

New efforts to book and direct people to vaccine appointments come as some states, like New York, are beginning to lower vaccine age eligibility requirements and after President Biden promised the U.S. would have enough doses by the end of May for everyone in America who wants a shot.

Roughly 31.5 million people, or 9.5 percent of the total population, have been fully vaccinated nationwide as of Tuesday, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.

That figure varies widely across states. Arizona has been one of the most successful, administering nearly 31,000 vaccines per 100,000 of the total population, based on the CDC’s data.

Gila County, Ariz., located about 90 minutes east of Phoenix, broadened its vaccine eligibility requirements last month to include everyone over age 18 after struggling to find additional people within the state’s eligible category to sign up for the vaccine.

Michael O’Driscoll, Gila County’s health and emergency management director, credited the county’s vaccine rollout success to preparation and communication with partners.

For example, he said the county let health care partners use their own existing systems for booking appointments and logging electronic medical records. The information was then uploaded directly into the state database, he said.

“If we asked our health care partners to go to a new system, that might not be nearly as efficient,” he said.

Gila County also used another unorthodox method to help residents book vaccine slots: a Survey Monkey questionnaire. If the survey with qualifying questions came back deeming the user eligible, county staff contacted them about an appointment.

But O’Driscoll acknowledged Gila County’s methods for its 54,000 person population wouldn’t be easily adapted for more populated municipalities, including the neighboring Maricopa County.

“I can’t imagine logistics errors that are happening with larger areas,” he said.

In some cities and states, volunteer-led efforts are popping up to fill in the gaps and supplement the government sites.

In New York, the TurboVax system — maintained and created by Huge Ma, a software engineer for Airbnb — finds appointments from 53 city and state-run vaccine sites in the New York City area. TurboVax posts open appointments on its web page and automatically tweets out notifications about available appointments.

New York state Sen. Brad Hoylman (D), whose district spans portions of Manhattan, recommended residents use TurboVax on Tuesday in a tweet shortly after officials announced everyone over the age of 60 would be eligible for a vaccine starting Wednesday.

“Technology has been lagging at the state and city level. And this entrepreneur steps forward and does a tremendous service,” Hoylman told The Hill.

“It’s a demonstration of how the state and city don’t coordinate their efforts, and it takes someone with 50 bucks worth of software ingenuity to do it on behalf of a state … [with a] population of 20 million,” Hoylman said.

Hoylman said his staff also uses TurboVax as an alert system to help residents.

Similar volunteer-led efforts to help connect residents with available appointments have launched across the country. In California, VaccinateCA is a community-driven effort that updates residents about information about vaccine eligibility and available appointments.

Sundaram said those systems are helpful, especially in places where the government may be falling short.

“It’s critical that every citizen of this country gets a vaccine quickly. I think there’s no debate about that,” he said. “So anything that can help direct people to the right information or to help them book appointments, I think is a good thing.”

Opening up eligibility to more Americans will mean a massive influx of people booking appointments. But Henderson, the D.C. official, cautioned that better portals can’t address the biggest problem for many current governments: lack of vaccine supply.

“The new website is definitely going to help in terms of turning down some of the anxiety, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the process is going to go faster,” she said.

Tags Coronavirus FDA Joe Biden

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