I HAD BEEN hearing the stories about seniors trying to sign up for Phase 2 COVID-19 vaccines: websites swallowing information, hours to find a location with available vaccine, people booking appointments only to have them canceled shortly afterwards because the vendor had allowed Phase 2 patients to accidentally book on a Phase 1 day.
Torturous computer applications are a fascination of mine—I often seem to be on websites designed by people who never have to use them—so, on the last Saturday of January, I logged onto the mass.gov COVID vaccine-distribution website to look around. I am fortunate. I have reliable, municipally-installed fiber-optic internet service, unlike numerous towns near me in western Massachusetts with no broadband. I also a) own a computer and b) am computer-literate, unlike many in the 75-and-older cohort who are now eligible to receive vaccines.
I own a car, so I can travel to a far-flung location if need be; a good thing, since there is not a single vaccine site in the 19 towns and 511 square miles of the 1st Franklin District where I live. And, as a healthcare worker, I had already received my first vaccine dose at work, so I didn’t actually need the website to work for me.
It took four clicks and a scroll-down to get to the mass.gov vaccine-location map, where the fun begins in earnest. The sign-ups are coordinated not by the state but, inexplicably, by the individual vendor, so locating vaccine means clicking on numerous color-coded stars indicating vaccine-distribution locations. (By mid-week, a zip-code lookup has been added in response to numerous complaints, which gives a list of nearby sites but no information about availability; no easy, universal registration.) It takes another two clicks to get into each location’s web page: one on the star (hovering over it gets you nowhere); one to click the link that then shows up.
I start with the Mullins Center at UMass Amherst. Both the weekend before and at the end of the first week of the Phase 2 rollout, the website is still set up only for first responders (Phase 1), and, anyhow, there is no availability in the coming week, but at least I know this within three clicks. Ditto for several medical centers 25 miles away. My online experience will only get worse from here.
I try CVS. the usual 2 clicks in and an astounding additional 19 clicks or data-entries, including choosing “Massachusetts” twice and answering three separate questionnaires, until getting to the “fully booked” page. Plus, there is no way to search all the CVS stores in the state; one simply needs to “choose another zip code” by, I assume, independently researching CVS pharmacy locations. It is now official: CVS does not value your time and maybe hates you, to boot.
Big Y is only marginally better. An additional 13 clicks after the standard two, but, helpfully, a page that lists all the Big Y pharmacies in the state, except that each time you are shut out of one, you must return to the previous page and re-enter your data, because, of course, nothing has been saved.
Eastfield Mall has a red star—a mass-vaccination site, the only one so far in the five western counties. It is only one additional click to get me to a page that tells me that there are zero appointments available for each of the next seven days, though, when I log back in the next Thursday, slots have opened for the following week. Apparently, I have inadvertently discovered the day that the state releases availability information for the coming week. Good to know.
Next, I try a yellow star for sites coordinated by maimmunizations.org, which turns out to be four pages of schools, Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, etc. Although kind of clunky—each site is listed by day instead of by week—I am easily able to see who has vaccine, and there is even a helpful little map. I find a single vaccine dose 1½ hours from my home.
Walgreens: “Get started” takes me to a page where I need to create an account first. Memo to Walgreens: Not. Helpful.
Stop & Shop: Only a few clicks and a zip-code nets me “No locations within 30 miles.” I look up and enter random zip codes from around the state; no go.
I admit the Baker administration has had a lot on its plate with the pandemic; on the other hand, they also had months to design and test an efficient, user-friendly, publicly-administered site, and they declined to do so. Instead, they outsourced the registration process (and thus availability data) to multiple private and public entities, and the result, at least for the first week of Phase 2 signups, has been chaos. And massive amounts of seniors’ time wasted—as if staying safe in a pandemic was not already stressful enough.
Here is how the system could have been developed in the first place, if site designers had deigned to care about user-experience: A website showing statewide vaccine-availability on a single page, with one registration form covering all locations. No hunting and pecking through lengthy private-pharmacy websites; no clicking multiple links to locate vaccine. At Governor Baker’s February 5th press briefing, a reporter mentioned that a volunteer software-developer has constructed such a website. Maybe the state will adopt it for use.
Partly in response to multiple complaints, a multilingual phone line to help seniors sign up for vaccines has just gone live. It is a great step to improve vaccine access. Let’s keep the momentum going.
Nancy Grossman of Leverett is a former municipal treasurer-collector and former member of the Leverett Finance Committee.