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Pent-up demand for coronavirus vaccine crashes Mass General Brigham’s system

Mass General Brigham received its first shipment of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday.Sarah Evans/Mass General Brigham

Images of jubilant health care workers lining up to receive the eagerly awaited COVID-19 vaccine turned to frustration and, for some, tears, as the online system for employees of the state’s largest hospital system to sign up for appointments crashed Wednesday night.

Administrators at Mass General Brigham toiled much of Thursday to fix the bug and bring its online portal gradually back online.

The health care giant is hardly the only hospital network to experience problems in its vaccine rollout this week, a sign of the complexity involved in such a massive undertaking that will eventually extend to nearly 6 million Massachusetts residents and hundreds of millions more people nationwide.


Just before 11 p.m. Wednesday, Mass General Brigham alerted its nearly 80,000 employees about “technical difficulties” with its online signup system, saying the problem was “driven by a large volume of employees trying to self-schedule an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine.”

That outage, which lasted all night and into Thursday morning, resurrected painful memories for a number of health care workers, for whom the severe shortages of personal protective gear earlier in the pandemic are still raw.

“Up all night after app crashed, in line this morning and still slots for today and tomorrow for vaccinations were filled before they cut the line,” Dr. Yuval Raz, a Mass General critical care and lung transplant physician, tweeted after 9 a.m. Thursday. “In my office holding back tears.”

Another doctor, from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, also expressed frustration in an e-mail to the Globe late Wednesday.

“For the nurses and respiratory therapists working tonight, to be denied that access, to have that feeling of waiting for an online system to reboot and then fail, it brought people back to those early feelings of not knowing whether they would have enough PPE, the feeling of not being protected by an institution,” wrote the doctor, who requested anonymity.


Ann Prestipino, an incident commander at Mass General Brigham, said there was such an outpouring of interest among employees that it “caused the system to slow down to a pace that was intolerable.” So administrators shut down the system to figure out what was causing the problems.

“As multiple people tried to enter and reenter to get in, it compounded the problem,” she said.

Finally, technicians fixed the issue. But they wanted to ensure it didn’t crash again, so they opted to bring it back in four waves during the day Thursday, with employees at only certain hospitals able to access it at a time, she said.

Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton was brought back online first, around 9 a.m., she said. It was important to act quickly at that hospital because the facility doesn’t have the ultra cold storage capacity — minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit — needed to store the Pfizer vaccine.

The last wave of employees, at Mass. General and Mass Eye and Ear, were scheduled to gain access to the online portal to sign up Thursday night.

When employees log into the system, they are first asked to answer a question to determine their eligibility to receive a shot from the first batch allocated for health care workers who come in direct contact with the novel coronavirus, Prestipino said. The system inquires whether the employee will be working around patients with COVID-19 or be exposed to the virus in their work during the next two months.


“We needed to make sure it’s not just doctors and nurses who have the first access,” Prestipino said. “If you are cleaning rooms, you should be in the first wave.”

She said they are using “an honor system” and assuming employees will be truthful when signing up. All told, Mass General Brigham received about 8,775 doses in its first batch of vaccines.

There were also bumps in the vaccine rollout this week at Tufts Medical Center.

“We received a hugely enthusiastic response from our large number of COVID-facing staff, which crashed the server we used to screen eligibility and schedule appointments,” Dr. Saul Weingart, chief medical officer at Tufts Medical Center said in a statement.

The problem, which arose Tuesday afternoon when the system opened, stretched several hours into the evening, he said Thursday.

“The [online signup] system is now working well, but slowly, and we have a team working in the background to help facilitate appointments for high risk employees and those who need assistance enrolling,” he said.

But the clinic that is dispensing the shots has not had problems, Weingart said, and they are doubling their volume daily from the first 100 given Wednesday to 400 expected on Friday.

At UMass Memorial Health Care in Central Massachusetts, the problem wasn’t the online signup system, but Thursday’s snowstorm. A spokesman said they dispensed about 40 vaccines at the network’s community hospitals on Wednesday but had to cancel the first four hours of vaccinations there Thursday. The company is planning to complete dispensing its first batch of 1,950 doses next week throughout its health care system.


Spokespersons from other large Massachusetts hospitals, including Boston Medical Center and Beth Israel Lahey Health, reported no problems Thursday.

Health care workers at more than 15 Massachusetts hospitals are scheduled to receive the shot, made by Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech. Nearly 60,000 doses have arrived in the state. With a second vaccine made by Moderna likely to be authorized imminently, the state expects a total of 300,000 doses by the end of the month.

Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her @GlobeKayLazar.