Can We Put an End to the Vaccine Hunger Games?

Too many local governments are still struggling with the technology that people use to get appointments.

Ms. Swisher covers technology and is a contributing opinion writer.

  • March 5, 2021
Checking temperatures on opening day of the Covid vaccination site at Disneyland.
Credit…Valerie Macon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Like many people, I took to social media last week to complain about how online reservations for vaccinations are being bungled across the country, just as more Americans are becoming eligible for a jab.

I also made a testy call to the manager, so to speak, when I dialed up executives at Microsoft, which is one of the many vendors hired by state and local governments to set up the online appointment systems. I wanted them to explain why the website they built for Washington D.C., where I live, felt like the 1980s was calling and wanted its internet back.

My agitation — along with all the frustration expressed by many other residents of the District of Columbia — appears to have gotten results.

On Wednesday, after the disastrous tech meltdown that took place over several days last week, the city’s government said it would replace its vaccination scheduling system with one that is likely to be fairer to all, regardless of their digital skills. Officials promised it will be up and running next week.

Sadly, the tech mess in Washington is not uncommon. The Biden administration has been struggling to federalize a vaccine rollout that is hopelessly splintered. Complex and confusing eligibility standards have varied widely among states. And far too many different digital systems are being used.

“Every single distribution system is different,” a techie who has studied the various rollouts said to me. “We are building the same software we already know how to build well, over and over, but badly.”

It’s worse than that — because everyone seems to be doing it differently. A recent story in The Times, referencing the varying systems across the nation, said: “In Kentucky and Indiana, anyone over 60 can get vaccinated but you have to be 65 or 70 most everywhere else. About 18 states are offering shots to grocery workers, and 32 are vaccinating teachers. Cancer or heart problems? It depends on where you live.”

Obviously this is a big problem when you’re trying to use tech and data to distribute millions of vaccines. As the White House senior adviser for Covid response, Andy Slavitt, noted to me in an interview, the Trump administration focused on making vaccines rather than administering vaccinations.

In Washington, the Microsoft-built one-step system resulted in a kind of Vaccine Hunger Games that forced those of us who had followed the rules, and waited in long lines, to try to grab one of several thousand appointments available on only certain days, often by wielding multiple devices and browsers like weapons against fellow residents.

While the first round of the rollout had gone smoothly in Washington — since only the most vulnerable groups like frontline health workers and the elderly were eligible — the system crashed as soon as the city opened up appointments to a larger pool. The new group was defined as those between 18 and 64 years old with certain pre-existing conditions, which included me, a stroke survivor. ZIP code was a factor, too.

Forcing this big and complex batch of eligible citizens through a single digital door resulted in some one million hits to the city’s webpage in a matter of minutes. A series of tech snafus ensued, including a confusing denial-of-service error message. In the end, most people couldn’t get an actual appointment, even after waiting and getting to the end of the process, and were told to start from scratch the next day.

On Friday, there were more reports of long waits and error messages. You can imagine the frustration.

As many others have noted, this is the first time many Americans have experienced government dysfunction, which the least advantaged among us experience on a regular basis.

In this case, the mess may be temporary. After several awful days of this, Washington officials announced that the current system would be replaced by a more civilized, two-step system, in which people register anytime through a computer or phone and are then matched to an appointment as soon as possible.

This is how some other states do it — and it doesn’t work perfectly. Complaints focus on the soul-crushing waits for those with a very high ticket number. But many have reported that the online queue typically moves faster than expected and does decrease the stressful suspense of wondering if you won the health lottery.

Washington’s new system will give officials better data on how many people — and their many different needs — want the vaccine, giving the city more insight into how to best target those who are more reticent to take the shot. In fact, the next critical challenge, after getting a shot to everyone who wants one, will be to find ways to convince others less keen to do so.

Getting your name in the system and on a list is certainly a lot better than being told, as Washington’s chief technology officer said in a video for the public last week, to clear the webpage cache on your computer’s browser and try again. Washington’s new system will also yield important insights into where to open high-capacity vaccination sites, moving the city from a community-based approach to more of a wider effort in which anyone who wants a vaccine can get one.

That seems far away for most Americans, although President Biden promised this week that adults who want to be vaccinated will be able to get a shot by the end of May, moving up the timeline from July. That’s great but of little comfort to those whose faith in government — not only in the United States, but in places like Europe too — has been shaken by far too much chaos in this process, chaos that is often related to glitchy tech.

The frustration is made worse by the feeling that technology rarely seems to let us down in our daily lives. When was the last time you recall an Amazon, Google, Facebook or Twitter page not working seamlessly? It’s rare — and great swaths of the public have become adept at using these tools with minimal effort. The pandemic has accelerated the development of those skills, too, with so much of work, social life and commerce moving online.

But sadly, that is not true for everyone, especially when the distribution systems feel jury-rigged and tend to favor the elite.

While I gripe about all of this, I do appreciate that Washington’s early efforts were aimed at trying to first reach those most in need. And the city’s quick shift to a better plan is heartening.

There are still not enough vaccines to go around, so for now local governments continue to face a difficult decision: prioritize getting as many people as possible vaccinated or target the most vulnerable.

That’s hard, for sure. And it’s also tough to ask those who have actually tried their best not to be Covidiots to forgive all of the tech mishaps.

We can be patient a little longer, of course, so long as we don’t become Covid patients just because we forgot to empty our cache.

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