Credit: Photo illustration by Julia Terbrock

On Wednesday, March 10, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration will launch a pre-registration system for the coronavirus vaccine. As this newsletter shared with readers last week, DC Health is retiring the first come, first served portal, where people had to rush to book an appointment Thursdays and Fridays. People will still have to visit vaccinate.dc.gov or call (855) 363-0333 to pre-register. D.C. residents and workers will be able to book online anytime, barring maintenance or other issues, and through the call center during hours of operation, or Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

Anyone will be able to pre-register regardless of whether they are eligible based on what vaccine phase or tier the District is in. However, Bowser is only encouraging people who are eligible (DC Health is in Phase 1c Tier 1, kind of) to pre-register. Why? The Office of the Chief Technology Officer says high traffic is in part responsible for all the past technology issues users have been experiencing with vaccinate.dc.gov. In addition to trying to prevent a mad dash to pre-register, DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt says she doesn’t want to give anyone a false sense of hope that just because they pre-registered first they’ll soon get vaccinated. Her department is sending notifications based on what phase and tier the District is in, along with other factors.

How the coronavirus vaccine pre-registration system works

People will be asked personal information like their contact information, occupation, and medical history when they pre-register. People will prove their, say, medical condition just by saying so, or through self-attestation. After pre-registering, people will wait to get a call, text, or email notification about how to book an appointment. “Your choice,” says Bowser. “This could take days. It could take weeks. It could even take months depending on your risk factor and eligibility. We do not currently have weekly enough vaccines for everybody who wants it.” People will get 48 hours to reserve an appointment and each invitation can only be used once. If someone misses the 48-hour window, then their name goes back on the list. The pre-registration system will select someone up to three times. If they don’t respond after the third time, they’ll need to pre-register again.        

Here is a breakdown of who will get notified this week

Eligible people will start to get notified on Friday, March 12. And then DC Health will begin to make appointments through the pre-registration system and send a second set of invitations if necessary on Monday, March 15. After this round and for the foreseeable future, DC Health will send notifications Thursdays and Sundays by 10 a.m., and Tuesdays by 10 a.m., only if appointments still need to be claimed. 

Nesbitt shared who the department is prioritizing among eligible groups this week for notifications, something Bowser expects to be shared on vaccinate.dc.gov on some kind of schedule:

“At this time, the order in which you register does not affect the order in which you will be offered an invitation,” said Bowser during a Monday press conference. “Although, we foresee that the randomization process that will be used initially may be adjusted to ensure that individuals are not passed over week after week by those with similar risk factors who most recently registered.” 

It came as somewhat of a surprise that the Bowser administration was ready to announce everything on Monday. Last week, a Council oversight hearing made it seem as if the executive wasn’t prepared. A vendor for the pre-registration program hadn’t been selected as of Thursday night because the executive was still weighing Microsoft and Accenture solutions. Chief Technology Officer Lindsey Parker said at the Monday presser that wasn’t actually a problem given these vendors had already helped the D.C. government with COVID-19 testing and contact tracing technology. “We made the decision when it was the right time to release the pre-registration system, which we are doing this week,” said Parker. 

Parker hopes the pre-registration system flattens user traffic because she says high demand and capacity issues have led to lags and technological problems. On Friday, officials said vaccinate.dc.gov crashed because of high demand. Users saw no appointments available on the page for six minutes after DC Health technically made appointments available online. “Massive spike in user traffic—all of a sudden the web hosting solution that we utilize [dc.gov] had to spread the load over multiple servers. That took five minutes for multiple servers to spread that load accordingly and then pushed everyone to the Microsoft solution,” said Parker.   

“What we can tell people is that we are doing the best we can to make the technology match the very high demand,” said Bowser in response to a question about why the public should trust that the pre-registration system won’t flop. And if they do experience a problem come Wednesday, well the goal is that they only experience it one time unlike the old system, she said. 

The health department also relies on select hospitals and health centers to book appointments for their own patient populations and vaccinate them. The number of doses health officials give to them, the portal, and special initiatives like mobile sites at public housing buildings fluctuates week by week. (The feds give D.C. doses on a weekly basis.) About 59 percent of this week’s 24,760 doses are going to vaccinate.dc.gov and the call center, while 29 percent are going to hospitals and health centers and 12 percent are going to special initiatives. About a third of doses went to vaccinate.dc.gov in early February when it was a first come, first served portal. 

— Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? cjones@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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