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State promises more fixes to troubled vaccine website, as officials, vendor trade blame over crash

Residents over 65 waited at Central Boston Elder Services in Roxbury for a COVID-19 vaccination Friday.
Residents over 65 waited at Central Boston Elder Services in Roxbury for a COVID-19 vaccination Friday.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Massachusetts officials said on Friday they are planning a key upgrade to the state’s troubled vaccine website that should resolve a major frustration people are having with the system: losing their time slot while they fill out the lengthy forms to confirm their appointment.

A top health official said the state is looking to add a reservation window and make other changes so people are not constantly losing a time slot and being forced to go through the entire application process from scratch.

The upgrade announcement came as the Baker administration and the software vendor behind the booking system traded blame over the crash of the state’s website Thursday morning, when 1 million residents age 65 or over or with two chronic health conditions became eligible to book appointments and flooded the system, causing it to go offline for part of the day.

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Tiffany Tate, whose firm makes the PrepMod software the state uses to book vaccine appointments, said in an interview Friday that the Baker administration did not warn her company that the massive expansion of eligibility would go live Thursday morning. As a result, Tate said, her company didn’t move quickly to increase the capacity of the PrepMod registration system.

“I did not get a phone call that said, ‘We’re about to kick it up a few notches’,” said Tate, whose organization, the Multi-State Partnership for Prevention, specializes in public health initiatives.

She also pointed out that PrepMod does not have control over the state’s main web portal that residents use to find vaccine locations, called Vaxfinder, which crashed repeatedly under the heavy traffic, displaying a now notorious error message that featured the image of an octopus.

“It wasn’t our octopus,” said Tate.

The state’s website acts as a portal or front door to the vaccination system, allowing residents to search for locations, while the PrepMod software performs the actual booking of appointments.

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Portions of Tate’s account were disputed by Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who said in a television news interview that her agency regularly communicated with Tate’s firm.

“They certainly were aware of our making changes,” Sudders said on WBZ. “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.”

Baker officials did not return repeated requests for additional comment on the system failure.

Late Friday, a Baker administration spokeswoman issued a statement saying, in part, “All of yesterday’s website problems were unacceptable and the Administration has acknowledged responsibility for the outages that frustrated many residents.” On Thursday night, the administration released a statement in which PrepMod said “we deeply regret” the problems.

In the interview, Tate said she was not trying to deflect blame, saying there was no excuse for what happened Thursday.

“The story is, we should have been prepared. Period,” Tate said. “There were significant delays. That should not have happened. I don’t have any real defense to that.”

Tate said that her company has ordered up additional computing power, giving the Massachusetts PrepMod network the same capacity as its network in California, a state with a population nearly six times larger.

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

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And in Pennsylvania, officials earlier this month told The Philadelphia Daily News that PrepMod couldn’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.

In Massachusetts, the website and related booking system appeared to be working normally since the upgrades, although some eligible residents said Friday that they are still unable to find an available appointment, largely because there isn’t enough of the vaccine to go around.

The next fixes to the system, as promised by Sudders, should be just as noticeable.

These include a “waiting room” where users can be put on hold until a signup slot is available, as well as a way to save partially filled-out applications, so a user who has logged off can return and complete the process without having to start from scratch.

In the WBZ interview, Sudders said the state will try to replicate the experience of buying concert or sporting tickets, in which consumers have a period of time — five minutes, for example — to hold their vaccination appointment while they complete their applications.

“We’re looking to make several improvements to the website, which would make it hopefully less stressful to individuals,” she said.

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State Senator Eric Lesser, who has criticized the Baker administration’s vaccine rollout, complained the state shouldn’t be starting work on such features nearly three months after vaccine shots first became available.

“There needs to be an explanation why these plans weren’t made before the doses arrived,” he said. “We’re not asking for the Apollo moon landing. We’re asking for a website that works.”

Lesser warned that as larger and larger groups of Massachusetts residents become eligible for the vaccines, the Vaxfinder website will have to cope with more traffic surges. In all, the administration aims to vaccinate an estimated 4.1 million people; about 1.3 million have received at least one vaccination.

“I don’t think there’s confidence that the system has been adequately fixed,” Lesser said Friday.

The administration’s handling of the vaccination process will be the subject of an oversight hearing on Thursday by a legislative committee. The Senate cochair of the panel, Democrat Joanne Comerford, said that Tate’s claims underscored the need for the Legislature to dig into the problems with the rollout.

“It increased the need to ask these questions directly of the Baker administration,” said Comerford. “I am surprised that the tech company that’s interfacing with the state’s infrastructure didn’t have the information that a million or so folks were about to be told that they were eligible for a much coveted vaccine.”


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