The coronavirus vaccination rollout happening now around the U.S. has so far been a dramatic, discouraging series of fumbles. In New York, unused vaccines were allowed to expire and thrown away due to strict phase eligibility adherence, as the city's positivity rate climbs to 9 percent. Our elected officials are bickering with each other instead of solving these life-or-death problems.
Now that more people are signing up to get vaccinated through the city's online scheduling portal, it turns out that the online scheduling part of this rollout is no different.
On Sunday, NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer, who is running for NYC mayor in 2021, posted a thread deriding the glitchy, complicated process of signing up for vaccinations through the city's site.
"[NYC] should be #1 in vaccinations in the nation from day one—and we should be using every tool at our disposal to vaccinate as many New Yorkers as possible as quickly as possible," Stringer wrote. "Instead we’ve set up a gauntlet that requires tech support.”
Several people replied with their own stories of struggling with the site.
Motherboard tested the vaccine signup process, and found that it is currently a disaster. There are at least five different websites that are being used to reserve appointments. New York City is using a “Vaccine Finder” website to connect people with their nearest vaccination centers. But there’s seemingly no way on this website to search all vaccination centers in a given geographic area for the earliest appointment, or to see if these vaccination centers have appointments available in the near future at all.
What this means, in practice, is that someone trying to schedule an appointment will click “Schedule an Appointment” and then will be taken to another website. The main issue is that many of these vaccine centers are using different websites to actually schedule their appointments, and many of these websites don’t have any connection with each other. This means that someone who wants to schedule a vaccine appointment could and likely will have to make accounts on a series of different websites, all of which have varying functionality.
While many counties in Florida are, laughably, using Eventbrite to schedule vaccine appointments, in New York City you have a situation where many vaccination centers in a single neighborhood are using different systems and different websites. A clinic near Prospect Park is using a site called “Signup Genius,” another is using something put together by New York City Health and Hospitals, another is using a city government-owned solution called VaccinePod. Another is using the Affiliated Physicians website.
Few vaccine appointments are actually available, which means that lots of these websites are overwhelmed, kicking patients back to login screens, have no appointments available, or are erroring out.
For all attempts, we tested it as a theoretical New Yorker in phase 1b—people 75 and older and frontline essential workers: teachers and education workers, including childcare staff, first responders, public safety workers, and public transit workers, according to the Vaccine Command Center website.
The process starts at the vaccine finder website for NYC. This page asks you to enter your location, and directs you to a map of places where you can get the vaccine, if eligible.
"Please note that each provider manages its own schedules and appointments," the site says. "This tool is intended to aggregate all of that information and make it easily accessible to New Yorkers."
Once you select a location, you're taken to a separate provider site, or a NYC Health website.
One provider site is run by Affiliated Physicians, a private practice based in Manhattan. As of writing, that site presents a glaring NO SLOTS AVAILABLE notice in big red font, which, unless you know that every site is different, makes it seem like there are no slots available in the entirety of NYC. That's far from the case—other sites we tested across the city have slots open all day long.
On the Affiliated Physicians site, for some reason, you use a generic login instead of a personalized one, which made us wonder why a login step even exists.
If you go to a different location, you'll likely get a completely different website with a new login process. Urgent care facility StatCare is using a site called SignUpGenius. On SignUpGenius, you'll need to wait for a text message after signing up, then send them back a paystub or proof of age like a government-issued ID, depending on how you sign up.
Another location, in the Bronx, sends you to a New York State portal, where timing selection is done by scrolling through "events;" and when all the events are full, you're scrolling for a long time. Yet another goes through a page run by Montefiore Medical Group, and is literally just a Microsoft Office form. At least it's simple and familiar. Another goes to a MyChart page, which is an app developed by the Institute for Family Health.
Crucially, it’s not super clear how these websites talk to each other, or if they do at all. After going through the process on an NY Health and Hospitals website, we got an error message and were booted to this MyChart login page—before being booted to that page, it was not clear that we were creating a MyChart account at all, or what MyChart is. The NY Health and Hospitals website doesn’t use the NYC government’s VaccinePod page, but it also advertises for it if you’re unable to find an appointment. New York Health and Hospitals is a quasi-government organization that receives funding from the state but it operates as a nonprofit corporation, meaning it also isn’t the state’s official Department of Health.
Locations that are at RiteAid pharmacies go to a queue. If you leave the page, you'll lose your place in line.
Most sites involve clicking through a series of screening questions to find out whether, and in what capacity, you're eligible for the current phase of vaccinations. Stringer claimed that the sequence of steps you need to go through is too long, partially because of these questions. This isn't a particularly complicated task—are you a frontline health provider y/n, are you in a nursing home y/n—but it is tedious, and a barrier to people staying on the site long enough, with good enough internet connection, to complete the surveys.
Some issues people are encountering could be due to the sheer numbers of people trying to sign up at once: New York state Executive Director of Health Donna Frescatore told CBS News on Tuesday that they received "over two million hits on our website starting right about at opening time at 8 o'clock this morning." CBS reported that several of the people they spoke to who are eligible gave up after trying to access sites that wouldn't load.
Hitting an error that all slots are full on one site shows no information about how a site a few blocks over might have several completely free days of slots open. Given the urgency of this task, not having one central site that can handle slots for the city—or even for separate boroughs—makes no logistical sense. If these sites communicated with each other, or showed information telling people that a different location might have better options and they can go back and try another, it could get that many more people vaccinated that would otherwise have given up.
Getting 8.4 million people on board with the same task is hard. We saw this struggle with the Covid-19 testing site result timing variabilities, where some sites are run privately and some through the state's health department—and where you went depended on how long you'd wait for a vaccine. Every phase of the coronavirus response in the US, from testing capacity and supplies, to insurance, to accurate and easy-to-understand education about how to avoid catching it in the first place, has been symptomatic of a healthcare system that doesn't prioritize serving people.
When there are so many barriers to getting people to take the vaccine in the first place, technical difficulties shouldn't have to be one of them.