Early Friday morning, a frustrating vaccine registration process was made even more complicated for District residents trying to register through DC Health’s portal.
Following a broken registration process Thursday that involved a “technical review failure” in which many eligible residents were unable to get through completely, the city made another 4,350 appointments available a 9 a.m. Friday. These were open to people 65 and older living in priority ZIP codes and those with qualifying medical conditions. DC Health said that approximately 160,000 residents would be eligible with this step.
As more than 36,000 people attempted to sign up for appointments Friday, all spots were filled within 30 minutes, according to Lindsey Parker, the city’s chief technology officer.
Some residents said they had better success Friday using the phone lines, but the website was not functioning properly for many. Some expressed their frustration on social media, saying they were met with errors in the CAPTCHA verification step to start the questionnaire — entering the correct string of numbers multiple times and having to re-enter it — while others reported that the site completely crashed after a few minutes.
DC Health and a spokesperson for the mayor’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. On Thursday, city officials apologized for the glitches and said their IT team was “working with Microsoft” to figure out the system errors ahead of an anticipated high volume of people signing up.
By 9:30 on Friday, Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted that the available appointments were all booked. “We experienced extremely high volume as demand for the vaccine remains high,” she wrote. “D.C. needs more vaccine.”
“We know how stressful of a time this is, and we appreciate your patience as we work together to get Washingtonians across all eight wards vaccinated,” Bowser continued. “Currently demand for the vaccine in DC is much higher than the supply we are receiving from [the] federal government.”
In a video message, Parker, the chief technology officer, offered advice for residents as the city figures out its pre-registration system. She said people should use Chrome, Firefox, or Safari as the browser, refresh the page if they experience issues, and switch to another browser when facing issues. Parker also suggested that users clear their cache (DC Health offers more guidance for troubleshooting registration problems here).
Councilmember Charles Allen, of Ward 6, tweeted that he was following up with both Parker and the health department, but made two immediate recommendations: first, getting rid of the weekly competition for spots by creating a one-time registration system; and second, expanding eligibility to more age groups, but less people at a time (i.e. “50-64 one week, 30-50 one week, 18-30 another week. Spread this out.”)
Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray said the Council’s Committee on Health is meeting on March 4 to conduct oversight hearings, and he plans to “reconfigure the hearing to have a panel discussion with Bowser Administration officials about the vaccination appointment process.”
During Friday morning’s performance oversight hearing for the Committee on Housing and Executive Administration, the topic of the malfunctioning vaccine portal took center stage. City Administrator Kevin Donahue told the committee that Thursday’s signup woes were due to a coding error that meant the vaccine portal didn’t reflect the newly eligible residents, and those under 65 were shut out. Friday’s issues, on the other hand, were due to the large volume of users on the site at the same time, “sometimes clicking repeatedly to try to get on,” he said.
“Yesterday’s [issue] was an error in the code and that should not have happened,” Donahue said. “Today the system was operating more slowly than one might expect a typical internet site to operate, but it’s because we had tens of thousands of people who, when it wasn’t quick, would hit refresh, refresh, refresh.”
A new vaccine registration system is expected to be released sometime next month, officials previously announced.
Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto questioned at the hearing why technical problems still persist when “the vaccine delivery was not new news at the start of this year … why is it still not able to be up and running?”
Donahue said officials introduced the signup system currently in place in an effort to provide transparency. “It let us set expectations for people that ‘look, this week we have 3,500 vaccines.’ … It’s clearer now the value of a registration system.”
The health department has said it will open 3,500 appointments for qualified patients in priority zip codes on Saturday, Feb. 27 at 9 a.m. Those doses, DC Health said, are coming from next week’s allotment from the federal government, and appointments will be open only to those 18-64 with qualifying medical conditions who live in a priority zip code.
“It’s annoying. It shouldn’t be like winning the lottery to get an appointment,” 46-year-old Brookland resident Kate Wulff told WAMU/DCist following Thursday’s frenzied scramble for a vaccine appointment. “It just seems like a terrible sort of Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies kind of situation.”