For the second week in a row, thousands of Massachusetts residents logged onto computers and smartphones in search of a COVID-19 vaccination shot, only to come away frustrated and no closer to their goal.
A mad scramble began at 8 a.m. Thursday when 50,000 new vaccine appointments were made available at the state’s mass vaccination clinics in Foxborough, Boston, Springfield, Dartmouth, Danvers, and Natick. And while the much-criticized Vaxfinder.mass.gov website performed far better than it did last week, when it crashed altogether for part of the morning, the site still suffered intermittent outages.
Moreover, a new “waiting room” feature intended to help manage the flow of traffic quickly became a new source of exasperation. It sometimes displayed wildly fluctuating wait times — a few minutes, for some, and in other cases as long as 99,613 minutes, the equivalent of 69 days. Other users were directed to waiting rooms that showed how many people had arrived ahead of them. And there, too, the numbers weren’t encouraging.
“I got on this morning into the wait room and there were 9,000 people in front of me, which I thought was pretty good,” said Rick McKenna, a former advertising executive from Winchester who runs a startup that makes personal organizing software.
Hoping to snag an appointment at the vaccination site in Danvers, McKenna got to the head of the line 50 minutes later and completed the signup process, only to be told that all the slots were gone.
“It’s just sheer chaos,” McKenna said. “If it was a private business that was being compensated based on performance, you’d change the team and try again.”
Others did not even get as far as McKenna. Natasha Conley of Millis has been trying to book an appointment since last week for her parents, who speak limited English. When she tried again Thursday morning, she found there were 90,000 other users ahead of her in the digital queue.
“My wait time never changed, it’s said ‘over an hour’ since I logged on at 8 a.m.,” she said in an e-mail. “This is impossible. There has to be a better way.”
Speaking at a legislative hearing on the vaccine rollout later Thursday morning, Governor Charlie Baker promised additional changes to the website are coming.
The founder of the company that developed vaccine-management software for Massachusetts told legislators the state has access to features that could simplify the process for residents. One program would let users fill in their personal details just once, so they do not have to re-enter it every time they search for a new appointment. They could also put themselves into a waiting-list-like queue and be notified when a vaccine appointment becomes available.
“That is a very orderly way to approach this rollout,” said Tiffany Tate, founder of the Maryland Partnership for Prevention, which makes the PrepMod and several other vaccination management programs the state has purchased.
Those additional features had yet to be installed, and the results were chaotic. Still, the system worked well enough that all 50,000 appointments were claimed within a few hours. About 1 million additional residents qualified to receive the vaccine when Baker last week expanded eligibility to people 65 and older and those who have two or more qualifying health conditions.
While acknowledging the website could be improved, Baker said the fundamental problem remains too few vaccines. The state receives 130,000 doses from the federal government each week, he said, but gets requests for more than three times that amount. The gap between demand and supply causes a massive surge in traffic at the Vaxfinder website whenever a new batch of appointments is released.
“The single biggest thing that would make people’s experience with the [website] better is if we had a lot more supply,” Baker told the legislative oversight panel.
However, the House cochair of that committee, Representative William Driscoll, suggested the governor was not focusing enough attention on making the appointment system easier to use.
“I think you’re missing how broken the system is now and the approach is not working for people of the Commonwealth,” Driscoll said. “It’s not working. It’s just not working.”
Indeed, a limited supply of vaccine does not fully explain the spotty performance of the website. But there was no replay of last week’s complete crash of the Vaxfinder system. And Baker vowed that better times are ahead.
“We’ll work with the vendors and IT teams to enhance the capacity of the site,” Baker said. “We will continue to make adjustments going forward to improve the user experience on the site and to make the system better and more reliable.”
One potential upgrade is the preregistration program from Tate’s company, which will allow users to essentially get on a waiting list that vaccine providers can then organize into smaller groups for notification when appointments become available.
“You get a thousand doses of vaccine, you pull a thousand names randomly from group 1C, and you send them a unique link to invite them to sign up for a clinic,” Tate said in describing the program to state lawmakers.
This would give Massachusetts a vaccine appointment system similar to that of West Virginia, where people can sign up once at a website, then wait to be notified when a vaccine shot is available.
Other technology specialists suggested the state website needs a bigger overhaul than Baker is promising.
Juhan Sonin, creative director at GoInvo, a Boston company that designs health care websites, said that despite recent improvements, Vaxfinder is still far too difficult to use.
“It’s not elegant,” said Sonin. “It’s really difficult to traverse for people who are digitally savvy. And for those who are not digitally savvy, it’s like a maze.”
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this story.