Lawmakers grill governor on website problems

Senator calls it a failure, but Baker blames lack of vaccine supply

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER was in the hot seat Thursday morning as the Legislature’s 17-member committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management grilled him over the state’s rollout of vaccines.

Baker followed familiar themes in his remarks, ticking off the state’s fairly strong metrics in administering vaccines and acknowledging a rollout that has been “lumpy and bumpy” at times. But several lawmakers hammered him on the performance of the state website used to find and reserve a booking for a vaccination. The website, which crashed repeatedly last week, held up on Thursday but still yielded a fairly unsatisfactory performance.

“It hasn’t been lumpy and bumpy,” said Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow. “It’s been a failure.”

Baker insisted the real problem the state faces is that more than 1 million people are looking for their first dose of a vaccine and the state is receiving only about 130,000 doses a week. He indicated that crush of humanity looking for vaccine is what is causing the website problems.

“The biggest challenge with the website, from the beginning, has been supply and the fact that people get frustrated, and I understand why, when they can’t access an appointment,” he said.

Lesser said no one disagrees the supply of vaccines is limited. “But in theory, if a million doses were available in the state but the website still crashed, it wouldn’t have made a difference,” he said.

“My constituents and all of our constituents are justifiably asking why the governor of Massachusetts, in the health care and technology capitol of the country, cannot figure out how to operate a website,” Lesser said.

Baker apologized for the problems with the state website, but said “every single appointment was ultimately booked.” He continued to insist the real problem causing anxiety among Massachusetts residents is the lack of vaccine, which may be remedied somewhat if a third Johnson & Johnson vaccine is approved for use and the existing vendors, Pfizer and Moderna, are able to double their manufacturing capacity in March.

Sen. Cindy Freedman of Arlington said the website has been a problem, but she also complained about the repeated shifts in policy that have come in recent weeks, including the decision to take vaccines away from hospitals on February 11 and then resume providing them this week, allowing them to start administering vaccines again on Monday.

“I truly don’t want to be harsh or mean, or be negative or nasty,” Friedman said. “But so many people feel anxious, jerked around, and completely unsure of how to navigate this system. And that’s just not okay.”

The website didn’t crash Thursday morning, as it did the week before, but its performance was still bewildering as another 50,000 vaccine appointments were made available.

A new “digital waiting room,” designed to be the electronic equivalent of forming a line, left many frustrated. Baker said on Wednesday the waiting room was “designed to basically keep the site running and operating to make sure people get through and have a smooth and uninterrupted experience.”

Logging in at 8 a.m., a visitor was shuttled to the waiting room and told the wait would be 380 minutes, or 6 ½ hours. The wait time then dropped to 82 minutes, 58 minutes, and then 28 minutes before heading up again to 41 minutes, 50 minutes, 318 minutes, and even 619 minutes, or more than 10 hours. Ultimately, when the user did make it into the booking site at 9:17 a.m., all the appointment times were gone.

Rep. William Driscoll Jr. of Milton, the House chair of the oversight committee, thanked the governor for coming to the hearing and asked him to return in two weeks for another one. He remarked, however, that Baker didn’t seem to understand the frustration of the public.

“I think you’re missing how broken the system is right now,” he said.

The governor acknowledged the frustration, but said the primary problem is that there is not enough vaccine to go around. He said he would return in two weeks, adding: “This one was so much fun.”

Baker then rushed off to an afternoon event where he announced the state would enter the fourth and final phase of its COVID-19 reopening plan on March 22. The announcement appeared designed to reduce the public’s focus on the legislative oversight hearing and signal the state’s return to some semblance of what is often called the new normal.

At the virtual oversight hearing, legislators sought to drill into specifics about the state’s contract with vendors like Curative, which facilitates multiple vaccine sites, and Maryland Partnership for Prevention, Inc, the nonprofit that created the PrepMod software being used for the vaccine appointment website.

Tiffany Tate, the nonprofit’s executive director, revealed that she knew a large group of people was going to seek appointments when vaccines were made available to the roughly 1 million people 65 and above and those with two or more comorbidities. But she said she did not know which day that would happen even though the crush of people last Thursday would crash the website.

“I personally did not know it was happening on that particular day,” she said.

Tate said the pressure on the website was greater than what would happen if someone was trying to buy tickets to a concert featuring Beyoncé, Tim McGraw, Bruce Springsteen, and Taylor Swift.

There are more than 2,000 more users than we initially licensed to use, said Tate of the organizations and providers holding vaccine clinics in Massachusetts. “Your state is using – our system is being used four times more than we initially anticipated,” she said.

“We had no idea what the magnitude of this rollout would look like. No one did,” she said.

The organization initially anticipated 800 users of the system – people or groups who organize the appointments on the ground. Tate suspects many of the users haven’t been trained in using the software, which can contribute to problems for consumers.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Not much is known about how much funding the state has given contractors related to vaccines, but legislators asked Baker and Tate for contract information. Massachusetts made a first payment of $300,000 to access the system, according to Sen. Joanne Comerford of Northampton, one of the committee chairs.

Asked by Comerford what the state has asked Tate’s organization to do to improve accessibility to residents, Tate only said that she was asked to improve the ability for clinical providers to “be able to have a more streamlined approach to administering vaccines.”