On Feb. 18, thousands of people were waiting hours on the state’s vaccine website for a chance at an appointment, some getting the soul-crushing image of an orange octopus instead. Governor Charlie Baker was so upset, he said, his “hair’s on fire.”
Behind the scenes, state officials were calling in experts near and far to fix the troubled sign-up system, which drew criticism from day one.
Records show that the state awarded five companies up to $3.3 million in contracts, mostly within a span of 11 days between late February and early March, to overhaul the system. In some cases, they were creating features that other states had included from the start, such as a pre-registration system to make signing up easier.
Now, more than 800,000 are on the list for an appointment, and Massachusetts has moved into the top 10 for vaccines administered per capita. Baker spokesman Terry MacCormack says the revamped website “is part of the reason that Massachusetts outperforms almost every state in the nation in the race to vaccinate residents.”
But on Tuesday, state lawmakers are expected to question top Baker administration officials about the vaccine program, particularly the early technical problems with the website that sparked public backlash. Even after a five-hour hearing last month, legislators said they had more questions about the state’s preparedness to vaccinate virtually the entire adult population.
“We saw that the vaccine was coming into the Commonwealth ... so how did the Commonwealth prepare relative to a plan, a website plan, and who constructed it, who oversaw it, and what were the quality control measures?” asked Senator Jo Comerford, chair of the joint committee on public health who will co-chair Tuesday’s hearing.
A review of state technology contracts signed over the few weeks paint a picture of an administration moving quickly and in multiple directions to fix a system that struggled from the start. MacCormack said the state has “adjusted its Web portal for vaccinations to reflect the needs of populations as they become eligible,” but also noted that “no state has had a perfect online system from the start.”
One executive brought in to improve the state’s vaccine rollout said officials deserve praise for the way they responded to website problems.
Caroline Savello, the chief commercial officer of Color Health, which provides scheduling and tracking technology for vaccines, said the task of vaccinating everyone is unprecedented, and it involves variables that change on a weekly basis. At least since Color began working on the vaccine website earlier this year, she said the state has consistently prioritized design choices that promote access and equity on the site.
Building a better website
Massachusetts officials scrambled to upgrade the state vaccine website amid a rising tide of complaints.
The first day 75-year-olds could begin signing up for vaccine appointments, the state is met with criticism over poor accessibility for seniors
Senator Eric Lesser co-sponsors a bill calling for a centralized, one-stop portal for appointment sign ups in multiple languages, and also a call center to help people schedule appointments
The state contracts Project Beacon for $250,000 to build an appointment scraper software for use at the soon-to-be-launched 211 call center
Developer Olivia Adams designs a website to help members of the public find vaccine appointments
The State unveils new call center to help frustrated seniors
The Baker administration amends its contract with Project Beacon to make the appointment scraper — now called the Vaxfinder — available to the general public
State debuts the Vaxfinder after widespread criticism of its website
Massachusetts signs $1.25 million contract with Color Health to work on a new appointment scheduling system, as well as an inventory tracking and reporting software for vaccination sites
Project Beacon’s Vaxfinder website crashes when the state opens eligibility to more residents
State signs a contract for up to $93,153 to use Akamai-powered technology to manage traffic volume on the Vaxfinder website
State amends contract with Color and asks it to build an digital waiting room to alleviate website traffic on the appointment scheduling websites
The Color virtual waiting room debuts
Massachusetts begins signing three contracts for up to $1.2 million with the Google Cloud Team to power a pre-registration system
Massachusetts begins signing additional contracts with Carahsoft Technology for software support, totally up to $216,968
The state hires three local digital designers to “quickly upgrade” user experience of vaccine scheduling system for up to $273,600
State debuts the pre-registration system, which allows residents to get in line for a vaccine appointment, even if they are not eligible yet
Legislature calls Baker to second hearing, scheduled for March 23, on his decision to use private companies to run mass vaccination sites and to ask question about the technology infrastructure of rollout
“It has been very apparent to me that the Commonwealth is really committed to working hand in glove with us to try and make this system and infrastructure the best it can be,” she said.
The state started receiving significant pushback on Jan. 27, the first day residents 75 and older could schedule a vaccine appointment, about how difficult it was for some to navigate the website.
Five days later, on Feb. 1, the state signed a contract worth up to $250,000 with Project Beacon, an organization launched last year by the Broad Institute in Cambridge. The group was hired to provide a scraper software that would help workers at the state call center find appointments for callers.
The public, however, didn’t have access to the scraper software, so they had no way of knowing which sites had available appointments before attempting to sign up for one.
Four days later, an Arlington software developer home on maternity leave, Olivia Adams, captured widespread attention by creating her own appointment-finding website, which she hacked together and promptly made available to the public.
In less than a week, on Feb 11, the state amended its contract with Project Beacon to follow Adams’s lead and make the state’s scraping software available to residents. It is now known as the Vaxfinder.
Democratic critics have chided the Baker administration for repeatedly playing catch-up with the website.
“From the get go, the governor didn’t have the best minds and best resources at his fingertips to make this smooth,” said Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat who has often questioned the Baker administration’s vaccination rollout. “We need to understand why Massachusetts, which is a health care and technology leader in the world, [initially] fell so far behind states like West Virginia.”
Several reports indicate that Project Beacon built the Vaxfinder system quickly in response to complaints about the state’s original website. When the state opened vaccine eligibility to residents over 65 and to those with two or more chronic health conditions on Feb. 18, heavy traffic caused Vaxfinder to crash.
“I can’t even begin to tell you how pissed off I am, and people are working really hard to get it fixed,” Baker said of the website crash during an afternoon interview on GBH radio on Feb. 18.
As the Baker administration embarked on a mission to end the technical mishaps, the administration turned to Color Health, a California-based health technology company that had transitioned to coronavirus testing and then vaccine distribution. On Feb. 17, the state and Color signed a deal for up to $1.2 million to work on a new scheduling platform and to assist vaccine sites with tracking inventory and reporting administration data to the state.
Roughly a week after the original contract was signed, the state amended it, asking Color to build a “digital waiting room” where people seeking appointments could go without overloading the scheduling website. That feature debuted on Feb. 25.
Savello of Color, who oversees the company’s work in Massachusetts, acknowledged that the effort to distribute the vaccine to the public has required flexibility to solve ever-changing problems.
“You have new groups that are eligible, new sites coming online, new manufacturers producing vaccines, new communities you realize you have actually under-vaccinated,” she said.
In another bid to upgrade the website, state teamed up with Google Cloud Services, signing contracts for roughly $1.2 million starting March 2, to develop a way for people to preregister for appointments. It allows users to sign up and receive a text, e-mail, or phone call when it’s their turn to schedule one, instead of forcing people to compete for open slots on a first-come-first-serve basis.
At the moment, this system is only available for scheduling at mass vaccination sites, but the state plans to add more clinics to the preregistration service in April.
The state also signed contracts with Carahsoft Technology totaling about $310,000, a Virginia-based tech company that sells software to governments. The contracts sought enhanced performance on the state’s Vaxfinder site and to allow the administration to gather and analyze data from the site.
Amid the system overhaul, on March 3 the state was still looking for someone to “quickly upgrade” the appointment sign-up process and to improve the design of the Vaxfinder, according to one contract. Massachusetts hired GoInvo, a Boston company that designs health care websites, and awarded it up to $273,600 for three designers.
Juhan Sonin, the company’s creative director, had been quoted in a Boston Globe story published at the end of February saying that the state’s Vaxfinder website was still too difficult for people to use.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Baker likely will be questioned about whether the state was adequately prepared for one of the most daunting tasks of the pandemic.
“There needs to be a record established of why the state tripped so badly in the beginning,” Lesser said. “We need to give people confidence that things will move more smoothly going forward.”