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Update, 3 p.m.: DC Health notified the public this afternoon that a “technical review failure” meant newly eligible residents were unable to register for the COVID-19 vaccine. “As the IT team worked to stabilize the website due to heavy traffic, there were delays in finding and fixing the issue with the eligibility criteria,” the agency said. The agency apologized for the added stress, and announced that it’d be making 3,500 appointments available to people who couldn’t sign up —namely, residents with specific medical conditions living in priority zip codes—on Saturday, Feb. 27 at 9 a.m. People can sign up through vaccinate.dc.gov or the call center.
DC Health says the error has been addressed. The agency also assured the office of Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray that the issue has been fixed for the next round of sign-ups. It’s still unclear whether the “technical review issue” was on the part of the Office of the Chief Technology Officer or the vendor. DC Health did not get into that level of detail with Gray’s office. The agency did say the website experienced ten times the volume as compared to previous weeks.
On Thursday, Feb. 25, D.C. residents 18 and older who have specific medical conditions became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in D.C. Those who tried to book an appointment through the DC Health’s portal, vaccinate.dc.gov, and call center at (855) 363-0333 witnessed the website crash. When some finally made it to the end of registration, they saw the following “thank you” message: “Currently, vaccination appointments are only available for District residents who are 65 years of age and older and/or occupations listed on coronvarius.dc.gov/vaccine.” Those who tried calling by phone experienced long wait times. Some of their calls dropped due to high volume.
Despite massive problems with the rollout, appointments intended for priority zip codes in Wards 5, 7, and 8—areas that are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 but have lower percentages of vaccinated residents—and reserved for the portal filled up in about an hour. The appointments reserved for the call center filled up shortly after. DC Health set aside a total of 4,350 appointments for the government portal and call center.
A spokesperson for Mayor Muriel Bowser says some newly eligible people were able to book by phone, although, City Paper heard a few reports that call takers did not know that the newly eligible group could sign up. It’s unclear if any were able to book through the website, seeing as vaccinate.dc.gov did not appear to recognize the newly eligible group. Groups who were eligible in prior phases and tiers—seniors and grocery store workers, for example—were also able to book through the portal and call center this morning. Tens of thousands of people newly qualify, so many are competing for scarce appointments.
“We know this morning was very frustrating for many people. We are working with Microsoft to understand why heavy traffic caused some eligible individuals to not get through,” said DC Health when the agency announced online appointments were booked.
D.C. hopes to implement a new registration system by mid-March.
Bowser’s spokesperson says eligibility through the portal was updated. The problem is high demand, they explain. However, this explanation does not jive with the messages that some residents saw. A few residents who were unable to book remain unsatisfied with the explanation provided so far. The spokesperson declined to comment any further until their team speaks with Microsoft to understand the problem. Multiple councilmembers are aware of this morning’s problems. “Lots of frustration that’s understandable. My team is following up with [Department of Health] and [the Office of the Chief Technology Officer] to figure out what’s happened & get fixed,” tweeted Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen. “There are ongoing questions about whether the error messages people received were due to high user volume or system flaws,” tweeted Gray. Gray, the chair of the health committee, has a meeting with DC Health scheduled for Thursday to determine the source of the problem.
Another 4,350 appointments will become available on Friday, Feb. 26 for this same cohort—residents with specific medical conditions—regardless of zip code this time. Appointments go up at 9 a.m. (People can book regardless of immigration status, too.) DC Health makes appointments available through their portal and call center every Thursday and Friday, alternating between mornings and evenings to accommodate people’s work schedules. Next week, appointments will become available starting at 6 p.m. The department reserves appointments for the call center, so if appointments fill up online, try calling (855) 363-0333.
What medical conditions make residents eligible for the vaccine?
Asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and other Chronic Lung Disease; Bone Marrow and Solid Organ Transplantation; Cancer; Cerebrovascular Disease; Chronic Kidney Disease; Congenital Heart Disease; Diabetes Mellitus; Heart Conditions, such as Heart Failure, Coronary Artery Disease, or Cardiomyopathies; HIV; Hypertension; Immunocompromised State; Inherited Metabolic Disorders; Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities; Liver Disease; Neurologic Conditions; Obesity, BMI over 30; Pregnancy; Severe Genetic Disorders; Sickle Cell Disease; and Thalassemia.
Can I book an appointment and get vaccinated through my provider?
DC Health gets all of the city’s vaccine doses from the federal government, even those administered pharmacies participating in the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. DC Health dedicates doses to their portal and call center, but also to select health providers who are vaccinators. The providers named on the portal, which include hospitals like Howard University Hospital and health centers like Mary’s Center, are reaching out to their patient populations to offer them the vaccine. If you see your provider on the list and you are eligible, you may get a call, mail, email, or text message. Supply is limited so providers can’t immediately vaccinate everyone who’s eligible. Some tell me that they are prioritizing patients who’d get seriously ill if they contract COVID-19. Not every provider in D.C. is a vaccinator because of the nationwide shortage. And not every provider has the infrastructure set up to administer vaccines. My recommendation would be to call your provider if you have any questions.
Can anyone else book through the government portal and call center?
Yes. Even as D.C. opens up eligibility to more people, those who became eligible in the previous phases and tiers are still able to get vaccinated.
How do I prove I have a medical condition?
DC Health has a self-attestation policy for those booking through the government portal and call center. Residents do not have to provide documents to register or bring their medical records to vaccination sites. Mayor Bower’s administration has mostly implemented an honor system for fear of creating barriers.
A few councilmembers, like Elissa Silverman (At-Large) and Christina Henderson (At-Large), voiced concerns with the current practice. “I understand that then there are obstacles and there’s racial equity considerations perhaps in the documentation but basically my point is that the reason we prioritize is we don’t want people to die,” said Silverman after saying she would like DC Health to ask for some type of documentation. “If we are not asking anyone whether they meet these conditions, that pretty much opens it up to anyone.”
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This post has been updated to include more information about the technical problem.
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