DC vaccine portal showing now available appointments
Credit: Darrow Montgomery

D.C. residents are relieved to know that this will be the last week of the first come, first serve COVID-19 vaccine portal, where people hurry to book an appointment Thursday and Friday mornings, and sometimes encounter crashes and error messages. On Friday, residents reserved the appointments at vaccinate.dc.gov and the call center within minutes. (Disclaimer: This reporter tried to book due to a qualifying medical condition.) Some users encountered problems this morning, leading one councilmember to reach out to the executive again for answers.   

“This morning, there was a 6-minute delay in activating vaccinate.dc.gov because traffic was more than 3x higher than last Friday’s peak,” said the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) in a statement to City Paper. “Once the site was able to be activated at 9:06am, residents were routed to the Microsoft vaccine scheduling application which functioned as expected. More than 4,500 vaccination appointments were made through the portal within 10 minutes.”

Even though relief is near—in the form of a pre-registration system that’s scheduled to launch next week—Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration struggled to answer some key questions after it previewed the new way forward on Thursday, March 4: What day will the pre-registration system launch? And is Microsoft responsible for the new system? And it’s also not entirely clear how DC Health will decide who to send notifications to to book appointments once people pre-register.  

After questions arose over what vendor is responsible for the pre-registration system Thursday night, the mayor’s spokesperson said Microsoft is Friday early afternoon. “We continue to develop and test a pre-registration portal with Microsoft to alleviate the traffic issue,” said OCTO. “However, the demand will remain high, and we will continue to advocate for more vaccine.”

A Council oversight hearing Thursday night with agencies responsible for the new pre-registration system made it seem as if the executive was not ready for the launch. “We still got teams right now testing, working on things, so that is not yet determined,” said Chief Technology Officer Lindsey Parker of the launch date. Perhaps most concerning to locals was the news that D.C. had not yet selected a vendor for the pre-registration system Thursday. “Stiff drink rating : [Four cocktail glass emojis],” tweeted At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, following the hearing where she asked executives whether the new system is Microsoft’s, as the company is responsible for the current portal. “We announced [the] launch of a system that we haven’t committed to buying.” 

Earlier on Thursday, Bowser held a press conference where her team previewed what the new pre-registration system would look like. Parker suggested they’d use a Microsoft platform after Thursday’s signups through vaccinate.dc.gov went smoothly. “We’ve done a number of load tests over the past week to make sure we were ready for today. This is going to be the same platform that’ll support the pre-registration system,” said Parker at the noon press conference.   

Hours later at the Council hearing on health, Parker deferred the question of who’s responsible for the new pre-registration system to Assistant City Administrator Jay Melder, who said: “We are working on two different paths for the pre-registration system … We have Microsoft working on that solution, which Lindsey Parker is discussing. We also have Accenture working on a solution … We want to make sure that when we do transition to a pre-registration system that it is the right one. That it has been through the right testing. That it has the right features that we are looking for.”  

The pre-registration system Parker previewed to the public was Microsoft’s. “That’s what it is going to look like,” said Melder when asked why the executive would preview a solution they hadn’t committed to yet. The executive previously said they’d launch the pre-registration system sometime in mid-March because officials wanted to make sure whatever platform they rolled out was strong. Last week’s repeated technological failures likely hurried officials to launch the new pre-registration system. D.C.’s partnered with Microsoft near the start of the public health emergency, but Accenture, who was in the running, also offers a vaccine management solution. Ohio, for example, appears to use the Accenture solution.

Other states, including neighboring Maryland and Virginia, have been operating a pre-registration system, so why was D.C. slow to do the same? Parker said DC Health approached OCTO in September 2020 to identify a technology solution for its vaccine rollout, and they went with Microsoft because they were familiar with their solution, team, and workflow. The portal launched on Dec. 16. DC Health’s Patrick Ashley told At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson in response to her question about this that the city was one of the first in the country to use this technology, so the pre-registration system did not exist in September. “We looked at a number of different systems to see what was in the marketplace,” said Ashley. “This was the best product at the time and then we developed it from there.” D.C. publicly announced its intention to move to a pre-registration in late January.  

It’s also unclear exactly how DC Health will decide who to notify after the public pre-registers. (DC Health is responsible for the programmatic side of things, while OCTO is responsible for implementing technology.)  DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt suggested at the Thursday press conference that the date of registration would be weighed the least. The agency is also weighing a person’s ZIP code, medical history, and occupation. Tens of thousands of people are currently eligible for the vaccine, so DC Health would have a lot of control over who to send notifications to so people can book appointments. “We can go in every day however frequently we decide. We can say we want age range between X and Y, and we want this many appointments to go to this group,” said Ashely. He added that DC Health is committed to transparency. Nesbitt said seniors would be favored in the new system, as would people in priority ZIP codes, communities hit hard by COVID-19 but have lower vaccination rates. The mayor’s spokesperson said operational questions will be discussed next week. (Select hospitals and health centers are also booking appointments for their own patient population, so people aren’t just getting vaccinated through the portal or pre-registration system.) 

The public does have more insight into last week’s snafu. “Unfortunately we didn’t sound the alarms with Microsoft early enough to handle the massive uptick in usage we’ve experienced,” Parker told the Council. “As a result we saw three days that resulted in extreme frustration to users and served to dismantle public trust in the vaccine portal. And for that I’m incredibly sorry.” When DC Health expanded eligibility to residents 18 to 64 with qualifying medical conditions, concurrent users increased from 62 to over 20,000.But the number of appointments were similar. As for Feb. 25’s technical failure, officials also realized they forgot to expand eligibility after resolving the traffic issue.“Tired eyes missed one workflow and we will not let that happen again,” said Parker. She said OCTO and Microsoft have since improved their workflow and increased server capacity to avoid problems this week. Microsoft is also paying more attention to D.C. after receiving a lot of bad press. Parker has a lot of hope for the new pre-registration system.

— Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

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