Amid scathing criticism of the state’s online system for finding COVID-19 vaccine shots, Massachusetts officials Friday unveiled a substantial upgrade that is intended to make it much easier for residents to quickly find available appointments near them.
The result is a new website, Vaxfinder.mass.gov, that uses a simpler, uncluttered interface for people to enter their location and find what sites near them have available slots, and when. The state’s first website requires residents to visit individual vaccination providers and undertake a lengthy — and often fruitless — search, filling out a new form for each one, before finding out whether a slot is available.
Still, the new tool falls far short of the easy signup procedures offered in other states; Massachusetts residents, for example, must still navigate to the individual vaccination providers, where they can enroll and book an appointment, as opposed to registering through one, central scheduling tool.
“It’s certainly better than it was,” said Senator Eric Lesser, a Democrat from Longmeadow who has sponsored legislation to upgrade the state’s online registration system, “but it would be pretty hard for it to go anywhere other than up.”
The new Massachusetts site is still a work in progress. It shows, for example, available appointments only at large-scale vaccination sites, such as Fenway Park, and sites operated by local health departments.
State officials said they’re working to incorporate appointment data from other sites, such as pharmacies, but note that there is no easy way to automatically update information from myriad other locations.
The new state website is but the latest adjustment by the Baker administration in managing the rollout of the vaccination effort in the face of tremendous demand and confusion. In order to reduce the risk of wasting shots that have a short shelf life after being defrosted, the state abruptly this week allowed people younger than 75 to receive a vaccination if they accompany an eligible senior to a vaccination appointment.
Also Friday, the Baker administration reported that COVID-19 inoculations had passed the 1 million mark. But the virus continues to exact a heavy toll, as the number of people who have died surpassed 15,000, officials reported Friday.
The state launched the Vaxfinder website after a barrage of complaints that its original website was confusing and difficult to use. Independent software developers stepped in to build alternative websites at their own expense. One called VaccinateMA was created by Zane Stiles, a private equity analyst at Bain Capital. Stiles uses a workaround to get updated scheduling from private vaccination sites: Volunteers he recruited are contacting them directly by phone and inputting the information.
And a software developer at the technology firm athenahealth who is on maternity leave, Olivia Adams, got national attention for building another rival site, macovidvaccines.com.
Adams said she met with several Massachusetts officials this week to discuss her efforts. The officials told her the state had contracted with a computer vendor to make the new website “a while back,” and did not asked for her help. “I had zero input, actually,” Adams said.
After reviewing the Vaxfinder tool, Adams said, “I think it’s an improvement for the state, but I don’t think that it’s any more functional than my site currently.”
Massachusetts isn’t the only state where citizen volunteers have created easier-to-use vaccine sites. The VaccinateMA built by Stiles was inspired by a similar private effort in California, VaccinateCA. And multiple individuals and organizations in New York state have assembled alternative vaccine finders.
But in some states, like West Virginia, none of this is necessary. There, for example, residents fill out a form on a state website to be put on a waiting list for the vaccine. People are notified by e-mail, phone call, or text message when a dose is available at a nearby location.
Anyone who can’t make the suggested date is put back on the waiting list. People without Internet access can call a toll-free phone number to book an appointment.
During a briefing about the new Massachusetts site Friday, officials would not commit to offering a centralized sign-up, but said that further improvements to the site are forthcoming.
By contrast, the legislation filed by Lesser and others would require the state to establish a central online portal where people could sign up for a vaccination by filling out a single application. Lesser said that Governor Charlie Baker has the authority to build a central portal, but that if he doesn’t follow through, “we’ll force it by law.”
The Vaxfinder tool does have information for users to determine if they’re currently eligible for the vaccine, and translation services are available by clicking on the Select Language icon at the top of the page. Vaxfinder also will be accessible on mobile devices, officials said.
The site provides additional detailed information on each vaccination location, including entry and parking instructions, accessibility accommodations, the type of vaccine being offered, and public transit options.
The state this week also rolled out a 211 call line for vaccine reservations, especially for residents age 75 and older who have difficulty booking an appointment online. But the 211 call center is available only between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said these limitations make it harder for the elderly and people in underserved communities to use the call center.
“The state did not begin working on that 211 call line until so late in the rollout that we’re really behind the eight ball,” Pavlos said.