On Monday, the state’s newly launched online tool to help people find out when they can get a COVID-19 vaccine had problems working under a crush of public interest. Then on Tuesday, the whole state Department of Health’s (DOH) website came crashing down.
The glitches signal the challenges in teaching an information-hungry public about an unprecedented vaccine rollout.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday that the state would immediately expand who was eligible to get a vaccine. The news sparked waves of people going to the DOH website and its PhaseFinder tool, a questionnaire through which Washingtonians can find out which phase of the vaccination plan they are in.
Tuesday’s technical problems were fixed about an hour after the site crashed.
“We understand the frustration people may have encountered as thousands of people tried to access PhaseFinder during the first few hours of its official launch. We worked to expand the tool’s bandwidth so everybody has access to the tool,” DOH spokesperson Franji Mayes wrote in an email.
Washington’s vaccination rollout, as around the country, has been slow and confusing, with a big gap between the number of vaccines distributed to vaccination sites and the number reported administered.
Inslee on Monday moved the state into the next phase of vaccination, known as 1B, which includes anyone 65 and older. The state’s previous guidance said the tier would include those 70 and older and people 50 and older living in multigenerational households.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Washington state hospital leaders said they worry that part of Inslee’s plan to accelerate vaccinations will lead to canceled appointments and public outrage.
Inslee said vaccination providers will have to shift strategy as the state attempts to meet a goal of vaccinating 45,000 people a day (the current rate of vaccination is about 14,000 a day). Instead of waiting for vaccines to arrive before making appointments, providers should operate on the assumption that more supplies are coming and cancel appointments if necessary, Inslee said.
“We have really serious concerns about this idea,” said Washington State Hospital Association CEO Cassie Sauer at a briefing with several other hospital leaders. Nurses would be pulled away from other work for vaccinations that might not happen. And, Sauer said, “I believe the public outrage at having a vaccine appointment scheduled and then canceled will be extreme and will really undermine the confidence in our vaccine delivery system.”
Emotions are running high at vaccination sites, said June Altaras, a senior vice president of MultiCare Health System. Some people are so joyous they burst into tears, she said, adding she couldn’t imagine canceling appointments.
As an alternative, Sauer suggested the state tell vaccination sites, which currently have no idea from one week to the next how many doses they will receive, at least a minimum number of doses they could expect.
DOH spokesperson Danielle Koenig said the state wants providers and patients to be ready to go to administer vaccines when they become available.
“That means there may be overscheduling or no-show challenges sometimes that lead to people not getting the vaccine on the day they’d hoped,” she said. “We know this isn’t ideal and some people may be upset, but overall we know we will drastically increase the number of people vaccinated in this state.”
Many people are already frustrated by confusion about when and how to get vaccinated, all the more so after the PhaseFinder glitches. Also problematic, said Mandee Olsen, chief quality officer of Kittitas Valley Health in Ellensburg, is another DOH website that lists county-by-county vaccination sites.
“That site isn’t accurate,” said Olsen. Some sites listed in Kittitas County are not vaccination sites, while others that are do not appear on the website.
DOH spokesperson Koenig said the website changes frequently and the list of sites “is a work in progress.”
Inslee on Monday urged the public to be patient as the state works to vaccinate all 1.5 million people now eligible for vaccinations while receiving, at the moment, only 100,000 doses a week.
The state has received 696,000 doses from the federal government and given 42% of those — or about 294,000 — shots, according to the state’s new vaccine data dashboard launched Tuesday evening. That dashboard has been long-awaited and delayed.
Providers in King County have given 109,000 doses of vaccine, according to the dashboard. The number of doses providers in the county are getting from the state is increasing. Last week, 26,425 doses were moved to King County providers. This week, the county is expecting 73,050 doses.
The lack of supply is evident in Snohomish County, where the Snohomish Health District and the county have opened three mass vaccination sites. The sites in Edmonds, Everett and Monroe have the capacity for about 30,000 vaccinations per week. That number would be 50,000 if the supply allowed, said Dave Somers, Snohomish County executive.
“Bottom line is, we need more vaccines for drive-thru sites. I find it frustrating that we’re having to fight for extra doses each week,” Somers said during a news briefing Tuesday. “Last week, we were given an allocation of only 2,300 doses by the state. We complained about it, we were able to receive an extra 1,000 doses from another county and another facility that helped a little bit, but 3,300 is far below the 30,000 capacity that we have stood up.”
Providers administering vaccinations in Snohomish County have received 41,300 doses and have given 62% of those.
Technical problems have plagued the state’s pandemic response. In November the state’s disease reporting system — the Washington Disease Reporting System, or WDRS — was overwhelmed when test results coming in outstripped its capacity.
Issues with the system stretch back to late March. It was created to receive information on positive cases for infectious diseases, like measles. The system wasn’t set up to accept negative results and it had never been hit with so much data for such a prolonged time.
DOH officials blamed issues including faulty software, too much data for the system to handle and changes in methodology in reporting the statewide positivity rate.