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Mass. vaccination preregistration system launching Friday could ease appointment frenzy

The new system, which launches Friday, could end long online waits

Melanie Phinney prepared Canice McGarry of Brewster for her vaccination on the first day of administering the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine at Cape Cod Community College in Barnstable.
Melanie Phinney prepared Canice McGarry of Brewster for her vaccination on the first day of administering the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine at Cape Cod Community College in Barnstable.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday unveiled a new online preregistration tool to make it easier to book an appointment at seven mass vaccination sites, a bid to ease the mounting frustration over the frenzied competition to secure a COVID-19 shot.

The new system, which will go into effect Friday, could solve what has become the most glaring problem in the state’s vaccine rollout: a vexing online user experience that has forced thousands to compete for a limited number of appointments. Going forward, users will be able to go online and enter their information, and later be alerted when it is their turn to book a vaccination.

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“Creating a preregistration system that makes it possible for people to register and then know where they are in the queue . . . takes some of the heat and some of the sting, I think, out of what the supply shortage does generally to people here in the Commonwealth,” Baker said.

The state has been under pressure for weeks from residents, state lawmakers, and most of its congressional delegation to simplify a process that requires residents to wait, sometimes for hours at a time, to sign up for scarce appointments — often with no success. The critics noted that several other states already use preregistrations.

Some residents said they understood supply is limited but they simply wanted a way to ensure they could easily be scheduled when it was their turn.

“Nobody would be upset . . . if you could just log in, register, and put your name on a waiting list and have them contact you when the vaccine is available,” said Maureen Gendrolius, a 71-year-old Plymouth resident who finally booked an appointment recently after weeks of trying. “It’s the way the state handled it — or mishandled it.”

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The problems have hampered the vaccine process even as Massachusetts has risen in state rankings for administered doses, especially among larger states. Weeks after the state opened the door to all seniors and people with at least two chronic health conditions, many are still struggling to schedule an appointment. That competition will only grow on Thursday as teachers and other educators become eligible.

As of Wednesday, more than 1.5 million people in Massachusetts have received at least a first dose of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, and about half have gone on to receive their second and final shot. Almost 33,000 additional people have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one injection.

The new system could also help the state prepare for a much bigger challenge as it eyes the rollout of the vaccine this spring to millions — first essential employees such as food service and transit workers, and then the general public.

State Representative Mindy Domb, Democrat of Amherst, said it was crucial for the state to improve the signup process before opening the floodgates to more residents.

“We should be figuring out what we need not just to solve the current situation, but for the onslaught of the general population when that time comes,” she said in a recent interview.

The state has not said when it will next expand eligibility, and Baker has continued to point to limited supply from the federal government and vaccine manufacturers as the biggest barrier to further hastening the process.

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The state expects to list about 40,000 new appointments at the mass vaccination sites on Thursday, but those will be listed on the existing website. Then, starting sometime Friday morning, all appointments at the mass vaccination sites will be booked through the preregistration site, which will be available at mass.gov/COVIDvaccine.

People will be able to sign up by phone or online on behalf of somebody else, to aid those who struggle with Internet access.

The current Vaxfinder website will still be available to find appointments at other sites, such as the “regional collaborative” locations operating in many counties. Other locations beyond the mass vaccination sites may eventually be added to the preregistration site, officials said.

The preregistration system is effectively a queue, keeping individuals’ place in line until it is their turn to sign up. The state promises that residents will get weekly updates by text, e-mail, or phone about their place in line, as well as the opportunity to opt out if they have obtained a vaccination elsewhere. Once their turn has come, residents will have 24 hours to confirm an appointment before they are returned to the queue.

“If they get into the system as a preregistration, they will get an appointment,” said Curtis Wood, the Baker administration’s secretary of technology and security services. “It may not be tomorrow, but they will get an appointment at some point, versus the process now where they’re fighting for appointments and they don’t get it.”

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What users gain in simplification, they may lose in flexibility, however. Residents will be matched only with the mass vaccination site nearest to them. Under the prior system, they would have had an opportunity to sign up at any location in the state, provided they could find a spot. Users will get to choose from a number of available times, though the options will depend on what other preregistrants choose.

The new system is being designed by Google, and Baker said it should hold up against what is certain to be heavy demand. The state’s vaccine booking website — run by private contractors — spectacularly collapsed last month the same day that people aged 65 to 74 and people with multiple underlying conditions became eligible.

“Google has set up preregistration sites in a number of other states,” Baker said. “They’ve pressure tested what we have experienced here in Massachusetts with what they’ve experienced in other states, and they’re pretty confident that we won’t have any issues.”

The state also announced that the mass vaccination sites will be devoted to vaccinating educators on four upcoming weekend days. Administration officials have previously said it would take about a month to get the 400,000 teachers and other school and child care personnel vaccinated, as they compete with other eligible groups for appointments.

The dates — Saturday, March 27; Saturday, April 3; Saturday, April 10; and Sunday, April 11 — were chosen several weeks into the future, Baker said, because officials hope to have more vaccine supply from the federal government by then. Educators can also sign up for appointments at other locations, including through a federal program offered at CVS.

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Baker emphasized that the vaccination process will speed up only as the supply to the state increases, a frustration he has repeated for weeks. But it is because demand is so heavily outpacing supply that a preregistration system was needed weeks ago, critics said.

“This is an encouraging development, but nearly three months after the first vaccines arrived in Massachusetts, many of us are asking why this didn’t come sooner,” said state Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who has emphasized the poor user experience in his criticism of the administration.

Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.