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Health boss says state ‘very displeased’ with Vaxfinder website appointment system vendor

“While the mass vaccination sites are booked for the week, a small number of appointments for other locations will be posted over the next several days. This includes pharmacies and regional collaboratives,” state officials said.
“While the mass vaccination sites are booked for the week, a small number of appointments for other locations will be posted over the next several days. This includes pharmacies and regional collaboratives,” state officials said.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

State Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said Friday that state officials were “very displeased” with the catastrophic failure Thursday of its vaccine website and booking system for COVID-19 inoculation appointments in Massachusetts and disputed claims by one of its software vendors that it hadn’t been informed about a huge swath of new residents coming online to reserve slots.

Sudders made the comments during an interview on WBZ-TV, one day after the state’s website, Vaxfinder, spectacularly failed by crashing on the morning that some 1 million new Massachusetts residents became eligible to book appointments. She also said the appointment system linked to the Vaxfinder site, called PrepMod, was developed separately by a Maryland company and performed poorly.

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“We were very displeased with the performance by [vendor] PrepMod yesterday,” Sudders told the station.

On Friday morning some people who visited the vaxfinder.mass.gov website and checked the box to show all vaccine locations “with known availability” came up with nothing but a message saying “no locations match this criteria.”

Neal Sanders, 71, of Medfield, said he began checking the state’s website at 5 a.m. Friday and was unable to find any openings. He then kept a tab open on his laptop so he could return to the site and check to see if any slots suddenly became available.

“It ought to be possible that you can say, ‘put me on the waitlist,’” Sanders said. “The Vaxfinder seems like it’s two or three steps behind where it needs to be if it’s going to be useful.”

Asked whether PrepMod had been told before Thursday that roughly 1 million new people would potentially be looking for appointment slots that day, Sudders answered in the affirmative.

“They certainly were aware of our making the changes,” Sudders said. “Because the attestation ... when we make eligibility changes we also change the attestation, saying now individuals 65 and older and people with two or more co-morbidities goes to them, and they have to upload it in their system. And there is daily communication from the Department of Public Health with PrepMod and with our other vendors, so I don’t accept that as an explanation for the system, for that part of the system crashing.”

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Earlier Friday, Tiffany Tate, founder of the Multi-State Partnership for Prevention, admitted her company’s PrepMod vaccine registration software underperformed Thursday when hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts residents went online to sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations.

But Tate claimed the repeated server crashes, and the notorious error message that featured the image of an octopus, had nothing to do with PrepMod. She says the breakdown happened at the state’s own Vaxfinder vaccine registration site.

And she said the issue might’ve been avoided if her company had been notified that Massachusetts was going to expand vaccine eligibility by one million people on Thursday morning. “I did not get a phone call that said, we’re about to kick it up a few notches,” she said.

Sudders, in her later WBZ interview, said the system was overwhelmed Thursday.

“There was unprecedented movement and hits on both the mass.gov website and then onto PrepMod,” Sudders said. “It was really an extraordinary number of individuals ... which clearly overwhelmed the system. And again, we regret what happened to residents of the Commonwealth, because people have been very patient.”

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For the site to fail, she said, “was completely unacceptable. I appreciate that PrepMod made the statement that they bore responsibility, and their team and our team worked hours into last night to ensure that things were normal” and in a “steady state for today.”

And despite being hobbled by website crashes and system errors, 60,000 vaccination appointments were booked Thursday, and there were no more openings available at Fenway, Foxborough, Danvers, Natick, Dartmouth and Springfield, state officials said.

Sanders said he spent hours trying to book an appointment on Thursday as well, with no success. The few times he found locations with openings available, he was unable to sign up.

“Each time, as soon as I filled out the information, I was informed there were no appointments available,” he said. “And all the information I entered disappeared into the ether, never to be seen again.”

Another time the vaxfinder website said there were openings available in Danvers. But when he clicked on the link to register, “there were no appointments at all,” he said.

Magda Romanska lives in Boston and is severely disabled and uses a wheelchair. She said she signed up for a notification of eligibility through the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, and received a text message with a link to sign up for an appointment. But the link hasn’t worked, and she keeps getting an “unknown server error” message, she said.

“Although I am now eligible for Covid-19 vaccine due to my multiple co-morbidities, as of now, there are no appointments and no COVID vaccination sites in the Boston area which can be accessed without a car,” she wrote in an email to the Globe.

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Romanska said Massachusetts “policies regarding the disabled — triaging them out of Covid-19 care on the basis of a ‘quality of life’, prioritizing them after the prisoners in vaccine distribution, creating a vaccination infrastructure that’s inaccessible to most of them — indicates the state’s warped commitment to what it perceived as the ‘greater good’.”

State officials said it could take at least a month for eligible residents to book appointments.

“While the mass vaccination sites are booked for the week, a small number of appointments for other locations will be posted over the next several days. This includes pharmacies and regional collaboratives,” state officials said in a statement Thursday night. “Currently, approximately one million residents are now eligible and because supply is still severely limited by the federal government, it is expected to take at least a month for residents to book appointments.”

State officials apologized for the technical difficulties that kept thousands of people glued to their phones and computer screens as they tried to access the website, vaxfinder.mass.gov. Officials pledged to “work on website improvements to streamline and improve this process.”

“The state’s website to find and book vaccine appointments experienced delays and technical difficulties and the administration sincerely apologizes for the frustration and inconvenience our residents experienced over the course of the day,” state officials said in the statement. “After the web vendor Prep Mod addressed the issues, the state’s website is currently operating. The Administration is now pressure testing the site to ensure the vendor’s adjustments are adequate.”

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Prep Mod also issued an apology Thursday, and the company said it was “committed to ensuring this does not happen again.”

“As public health servants and your partner, we are sorry for not meeting expectations,” Prep Mod officials said in a statement Thursday. “Unfortunately, the system did not scale fast enough to accommodate the increased volume. We will work continuously to ensure that the system is responsive to and accommodating for the people seeking COVID-19 vaccinations.”

PrepMod officials said Thursday night that the site was operating normally and they did not anticipate further issues.

“All appointments posted for all mass vaccination sites have been fully booked for the week,” the statement said.

PrepMod’s has had website issues elsewhere in the country.

The Los Angeles Times reported in early January that California’s vaccine rollout was being at least partially slowed by problems with PrepMod, with L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer telling the paper the issues affected a waiting list registry and access to vaccine registration in her region.

And in Pennsylvania, officials earlier this month told The Philadelphia Daily News that PrepMod can’t create private appointment links, overbooks clinics, sends patients wrong or conflicting scheduling reminders, and lets people make appointments even if they aren’t yet eligible.

One prominent voice in Boston’s medical community, Dr. David Rosman, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, offered thoughts on the Vaxfinder saga in a lengthy Twitter thread Friday morning.

“You know in which situation you wouldn’t need a website to get your vaccine? From your #doctor,” Rosman wrote. “We need these big sites. They help. Doctors and patients have long standing trusting relationships that can help too.”

Even before the website woes, he continued, “there is #inequity in stopping you from getting vaccine from your physician. The #disabled, and less web connected patients are being missed. Those who have skepticism of large government programs are being missed. Vaccine hesitant - missed.”

Rosman continued, “We are in the midst of health care scarcity. Most of #privilege have never really experienced this. It’s hard and no one says the solution is easy. Mostly it takes patience by us all. And that patience requires trust. Patients trust their doctors.”

He said it’s important to note “that having doctors involved wouldn’t mean there is more vaccine. But if you called your doctor and she could say ‘I get 50 doses a week - every week - Mrs. Williams. I have you down for the week of April 5′ - at least you would know. We can help.”

Jeremiah Manion, Hiawatha Bray and Andrew Caffrey of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.