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Mass. residents find other paths to secure COVID-19 vaccine appointments

Kelly Hogan gave a vaccine to Mary Ogiste London at a clinic provided by Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center.
Kelly Hogan gave a vaccine to Mary Ogiste London at a clinic provided by Harvard Street Neighborhood Health Center.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

It doesn’t have to be a dystopian ordeal, grappling with the state’s unwieldy website and trapped for hours in online waiting rooms in search of a life-saving COVID-19 vaccine. There are other paths to a shot.

A number of hospital and health care systems, cut off from receiving vaccine doses last month when the Baker administration expressed frustration at their pace of delivering shots, are back with fresh shipments after a public outcry. Hospital leaders say their new vaccination push includes hot lines, phone calls, e-mails, and texts to patients with links to sign up for a shot.

Angst in Massachusetts is rising as roughly 2 million residents are now eligible for a vaccine and hundreds of thousands are still vying for an appointment on any given day. But many in this massive cohort, which includes residents 65 and older and those with two or more underlying health conditions, are not tech savvy, don’t have access to high-speed Internet services, can’t spend hours on the hunt, or are simply overwhelmed by the challenge.

Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley has been trying to get the word out, tweeting and advising constituents about a helpful hospital website (bmc.org/covid-19-vaccine-locations) and phone number (617-638-9620) at Boston Medical Center. O’Malley’s 70-year-old aunt and other constituents, initially thwarted by the state’s balky website, were able to use this information to recently get vaccinated. People must be Boston residents and currently eligible for a shot to access an appointment through this site or number, which links them to a BMC location in Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roslindale, or Dorchester.

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“I have had a number of seniors reach out to me for help,” O’Malley said. “I was so impressed by Boston Medical Center’s old school approach — they do have a website but also a phone number.”

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At the state’s largest health care system, Mass General Brigham, leaders say they are starting to e-mail eligible groups among their 1.8 million patients electronic “tickets” that contain a personalized link to sign up. Mass General Brigham is first targeting patients in communities that have been hit hardest by infections but is also reaching out in a wider sweep.

Unlike the state’s website, where available slots evaporate seemingly in an instant, these invitations don’t disappear so quickly, said Dr. Tom Sequist, MGB’s chief patient experience and equity officer.

“We are trying to ensure if you are reached out to, you will get a slot,” Sequist said. But he encourages patients to act as quickly as possible, because if they wait more than 21 days, the slot could be gone. The system will also be texting patients with a link, because more people tend to use cellphones with Internet access than computers, Sequist said.

Mass General Brigham’s eligible patients may also register for available slots on the system’s patient gateway, a portal that allows patients access to their records and other types of appointments. The portal started making COVID vaccine appointments available March 3 at Assembly Row in Somerville, but more appointments at other MGB locations are expected in the coming days.

Mike Festa, director of AARP Massachusetts, which lobbies state officials on behalf of older residents, said he’s relieved to hear hospitals are aggressively stepping forward to reach people because his organization has been hearing from a lot of frustrated seniors.

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“There are a percentage of people who have just given up,” Festa said. “That is my biggest worry.”

Festa, who is over 65 and qualifies for a shot, has spent hours, searching simultaneously on his laptop, cellphone, and iPad and also has come up short.

At Beth Israel Lahey Health, the ramp-up begins next week.

“We have the ability to be vaccinating 14,000 patients [a week] for first dose appointments and that will be our run rate going forward,” said Peter Shorett, who is leading the system’s initiative.

BI Lahey, which counts 1.6 million patients, also is concentrating first on communities of color and those hardest hit by the virus, but also is randomly sending e-mails and texts to its other qualifying patients with links to sign up for a shot. And for those who only have landlines, the system is sending out voice messages that direct patients to a helpline to register.

UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester is expecting in the next week to be able to double the number of vaccines it delivers daily, from about 300 to 600, with 60 percent of those reserved for the system’s patients and the rest up for grabs on the state’s website. The system, with 400,000 patients, is also ratcheting up outreach through e-mail.

But for people who are too antsy to wait for their health care system to contact them, there is a cornucopia of new, free services springing up from bands of techie gurus that will send a text or e-mail alert when there is a shot available in the user’s preferred location. Some, such as Massachusetts Covid Vaccination Help, find and book appointments for people. Others are websites, such as MACovidVaccines.com, that scour and find available openings, and users then sign up.

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The sites are unaffiliated with the state’s official system, and officials have advised consumers against using such “unauthorized, non-official sources.”

One of the newest entrants is a service, called MA Covid Vaccine Finder, developed by three Beverly sisters, that keeps it simple. Users provide their name and e-mail, and the system e-mails with open appointments.

The cofounders, Lilla Gabrieli, 23, and her sisters, Polly, 24, and Abigail, 26, were frustrated when their mom couldn’t snag an appointment Feb. 18, the day the state’s system crashed when nearly a million people, ages 65 to 74, and those with underlying health conditions, became eligible and swamped the website.

By nightfall, Lilla Gabrieli, a master’s student in data science, devised a program to quickly scour the state’s website and find slots. Her mom, using the system, got an appointment for the next day. So Gabrieli posted an offer on Facebook to help other friends and families and things snowballed from there. It’s mushroomed from 500 to over 2,000 requests for help, and growing, the sister said.

They’ve built a website and say they are refining their program to better target the user’s preferred locations for a shot.

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“We are making sure when people reach out, if we aren’t the best fit, we are responding to them,” Gabrieli said. “We are letting them know they are not alone. We are real people behind the screen and we are trying to do the best helping people across the state.”


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