The scheduling website crashed multiple times Sunday, and others thought they had gotten an appointment only to learn they hadn’t
CLARK COUNTY — For thousands of people trying to get in line for a COVID-19 vaccine at the Clark County Fairgrounds, Sunday was a bad case of deja vu.
The Department of Health had announced that a slate of around 3,000 appointment spots would open at noon on Sunday, so many logged onto the registration page at exactly that time.
For most, it ended in frustration, confusion, or both.
“We filled out the information, clicked ‘send’ and the message was something to the effect of, ‘we’re scanning the details of your appointment, we’ll be right with you,’” said Barry Copeland, 68, of Bonney Lake. “That stayed there for the next hour.”
Scared to refresh the page, Copeland waited. No email or text message arrived telling them their appointment was confirmed, so he called the state’s COVID-19 hotline.
“And about six hours later, we got a phone call back from a lady that was working from home and very nice,” says Copeland. “But said ‘we have nothing to do with the appointment list. We can’t see it, we can’t help you with that.’”
Copeland says he was told to call the Clark County Fairgrounds, who said they also couldn’t see the appointment list. Another person told him to call Clark County Public Health, who referred him back to the state.
“It’s awfully disappointing when you think, ‘gee, I’m in,’” he says. “And it doesn’t look like it.”
A Department of Health (DOH) spokesperson confirmed that, if you haven’t received a confirmation text or email, you are not on the appointment list.
Others who went online to vent their frustrations said they had repeatedly been able to click a timeslot, only to have the system say it was gone by the time they finished entering their information.
Then, it was back to square one, and another frantic attempt to beat the competition.
On Facebook, MaryAnn Bubna called it “an emotional ride.”
“Oh, we got in!” she wrote. “Oh, the appointment calendar isn’t loading, bummer. But it loaded in my other window! Oh, but now that it’s all filled out, it’s not submitting it. Oh, now it’s an error 404. [Several minutes later] It’s up! Oh, I got my dad an appointment! Yay!”
Her remarks were on the more understanding side, with others calling the system “unfair,” “ridiculous,” “clunky,” and “overloaded.”
Some were told they could call the state’s COVID-19 hotline at 1-800-525-0127 then press ‘#’ and someone would assist them with scheduling. Copeland says he did that and was told they couldn’t help him.
“That is super frustrating,” acknowledged Lauren Jenks, assistant secretary for environmental and public health with DOH during a Facebook Live briefing that included Clark County Public Health and members of Pacific Northwest Incident Management Team 3, a Type 1 incident management team sent to the region by FEMA.
Currently, appointments for the fairgrounds vaccination site are handled by Safeway pharmacies, since they are the primary group doing the vaccinations.
Jenks acknowledged that Safeway’s scheduling site hasn’t been up to the task of handling the load of people trying to get an appointment, causing several crashes and hang-ups.
“What we have been trying to figure out is whether you could go to one place and sign up for a vaccine depending on where it is available and what is close to you,” she said, acknowledging that a system such as that exists for tracking childhood vaccine appointments, but would need to be upscaled to fit an endeavor of this magnitude.
“Sort of like an Expedia thing where it knows all of the doctors and all of the vaccine that’s available,” she said. “So we’re hoping to expand that system so that it works a little better for everybody.”
Until then, the patchwork of multiple pathways to find out where and when you can be vaccinated is likely to continue, at least for the next several weeks.
“I want to acknowledge that this is frustrating,” said Dr. Steve Krager, deputy director for Clark County Public Health. “It’s frustrating for us as we’re trying to give vaccine to people as quickly as possible.”
Currently, people are encouraged to sign up for notification with the county’s registration page, a waitlist now over 20,000 people in length, as well as their individual providers and the Clark County Fairgrounds site, when possible.
“We’re just not getting enough vaccine supply to our healthcare providers right now to meet that demand,” Krager said.
Jenks noted that providers statewide requested well over 300,000 doses this week, more than three times the amount the state is currently receiving. While that’s good news, in the sense that capacity to get people in and vaccinated is growing, it won’t be of any help until shipment sizes increase.
Meanwhile, the health departments in Clark, Cowlitz, and Skamania counties continue working with FEMA’s incident management team to lay the groundwork for better distribution of the vaccine, as soon as supplies are available.
“When the vaccine starts to flow at a higher rate, the systems are in place to deliver that in a timely fashion and efficiencies are there to get that job done,” said Randy Johnson, the PNW Team 3 commander. “We look forward to additional vaccine coming online so that we can implement these resources.”
Krager said the focus of the local health departments will largely be on getting vaccines to elderly populations that might not be able to make it to a health provider or mass vaccination site, along with a number of area long-term care facilities that have been left out of the federal government’s program to vaccinate skilled nursing facilities.
To do that, they would make use of local fire and paramedic services to do in-home vaccination visits, or provide clinics at schools and other facilities.
Jenks noted that there’s a long road ahead to finish vaccinating people in the current Phase 1A and 1B1. The state plans to open Tier 2, which would include frontline workers over age 50, including teachers, once 50 percent of Phase 1B1 has been vaccinated. That next phase includes built-in flexibility, meaning all teachers at a school could get vaccinated regardless of age, assuming sufficient supplies can be provided.
Barring a major increase in vaccine availability, though, it could still be March or even April before that next tier can start lining up.
Still, DOH and local health department officials say work is proceeding to smooth out the process. In the meantime, there’s bound to be some growing pains and frustration.
“We are administering it as fast as we can, but we just don’t have enough slots,” said Krager. “Hopefully that will change in the future. And I just asked for people to be a little bit patient.”