State vaccine website crashes as 1 million more people became eligible



By Colin A. Young

Heavy traffic torpedoed the state’s vaccination scheduling website, but there were no appointments for the seniors and people with multiple health complications to book anyways. The state said it had not added the more than 70,000 appointments that Gov. Charlie Baker said would become available at 8 a.m. to the system by the time it failed.

“Due to extremely high traffic and volume, the VaxFinder tool and vaccine location websites are experiencing delays and other technical difficulties. We are working as quickly as possible to resolve these issues,” a spokesperson for the state’s COVID-19 Command Center said in an email just after 9 a.m. “New appointments have not posted yet for next week. Appointments will be made available soon and will be released throughout the morning. The Command Center will continue to provide updates.”

People visiting the website after 8 a.m. Thursday were met with a message that “this application crashed.” Visitors were advised to try again later. The website appeared to be back up at about 10 a.m., though it was unclear whether the new appointments had been added at that point.

When Baker announced Wednesday that people 65 years old or older, the residents and staff of affordable and low-income housing for seniors, and people with two or more health conditions that put them at higher risk for hospitalization or death would be able to start booking vaccination appointments at 8 a.m. Thursday, it represented roughly a doubling of the number of people eligible for the limited number of vaccine doses.

“I think the website will be in good shape for this,” Baker said Wednesday when asked if the state’s website would be ready to handle the added traffic Thursday morning.

In an interview with NBC10 Boston and NECN, Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel confirmed Thursday morning that the problem with the website was caused by the increase in traffic to it.

“A million more people has increased the volume to the website and it has intermittently been going down,” she said. “We are working on problem solving and this is related to the volume of individuals who are now eligible and we hope to have all of those website issues resolved very shortly.”

On the website, the page telling people that the site had crashed featured a confused-looking orange octopus with only four arms. Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton, the co-chair of the new Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, saw some symbolism in that.

“The four-armed octopus is an apt metaphor for an incomplete @MassGovernor creature without enough limbs to do its work,” she tweeted Thursday morning.

That new committee, led on the House side by Rep. William Driscoll of Milton, announced Wednesday that it will hold an oversight hearing Feb. 25 to get testimony from the executive branch about how it has been distributing vaccine doses and its plans for the future.

“The list of questions for the vaccine rollout oversight the hearing we scheduled for next Thursday 2/25 gets longer by the day,” Driscoll tweeted Thursday morning amid the website chaos. “There is a deep need for improved planning. The public demands it & deserves it.”

Senate President Karen Spilka referenced next week’s oversight hearing in a statement Thursday: “[W]e expect answers from those responsible for this failure. The Administration must deliver a better experience for our residents, who have already dealt with so much anxiety and disruption.”

As of Thursday, about 2.1 million of the state’s roughly 6.9 million residents are eligible to be vaccinated against the coronavirus that has infected more than half-a-million people here and killed more than 15,600. Baker and other officials cautioned that it could take up to a month for everyone who became eligible Thursday to book an appointment as demand exceeds the supply of vaccine doses from the federal government.

As of Wednesday, 893,312 people in Massachusetts had received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 316,302 of those people had also received a second dose, making them fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the Department of Public Health said Wednesday. Massachusetts had administered about 79.2 percent of the 1,158,050 vaccine doses that have been shipped here, DPH said. Administration officials said roughly half of the previous group to become eligible, people 75 or older, had already scheduled vaccination appointments.

The state’s website appears to have also crashed on Wednesday, between the time that media outlets began reporting that new demographic groups would soon become eligible and Baker’s press conference to provide details. A New York Times reporter tweeted a screenshot Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. that showed the same octopus-adorned error message.

The Mass. Democratic Party seized on the Wednesday crash to suggest that the Republican governor’s administration should have known the website was not ready for the additional traffic.

“The vaxfinder website is down. Again. Once, the reason might be ‘technical difficulties.’ But twice in 24 hours? That’s incompetence,” the party posted Thursday moring.

Later, party chairman Gus Bickford said the multiple issues with the administration’s vaccine rollout cause frustration, fear and a lack of confidence among residents.

“Anything short of a direct apology for this latest disaster is another complete cop out from the Governor who has mastered the art of dodging responsibility,” Bickford said.

Baker does not have a press conference on his schedule for Thursday, but he is expected to appear on GBH Radio’s “Boston Public Radio” for an hour beginning at noon Thursday.

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