With vaccines opening up to all Massachusetts residents age 65 and older and those with two or more qualifying medical conditions, the number of people eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine soars into the millions. Now, traffic is stampeding clinic, pharmacy and state websites as they jockey for appointments.
On Thursday morning, as a million more people became eligible to get the vaccine, the state's website crashed.
Instead of showing clinics, mass vaccination sites and pharmacies with available appointments, the website displayed a confused cephalopod.
As more people click on vaccine appointment websites, the traffic has created a heavy burden on servers, explained Olivia Adams, a software engineer who built a website that aggregates available vaccine appointments at clinics across the state.
“It kind of hearkens back to like, a college course sign up, at least for me. Everyone would wake up at 6 a.m. and start refreshing their tabs and then, you know, posting about how they all brought the website down,” Adams said in an interview last week. “So, I hope we don’t have that scenario.”
But Thursday morning made clear that vaccine websites were already buckling under the strain and crashing as new appointments were added.
In response to a question on GBH's Boston Public Radio, Gov. Baker said, "My hair's on fire about the whole thing. I cannot even begin to tell you how pissed off I am." He later added, "This is not satisfactory ... it's awful. It's going to get fixed and I'm going to work very hard to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Baker said his administration had done a lot of "scenario planning" to prepare for the influx of traffic to the website but said it was "clearly not enough."
Compounding matters, the state's 2-1-1 vaccine appointment support line also failed Thursday morning to connect residents with its call center, with some people saying that the phone line simply hung up. Aside from the state’s vaccine finder website, another critical state website that vaccine seekers need to actually make appointments at mass vaccination sites like Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park also went down Thursday morning. CIC Health runs those mass vaccination sites, and its website stayed quick and responsive. However, when people tried to navigate from CIC Health’s page to the state’s page to make their appointment, the connection stalled.
The state's COVID-19 Command Center apologized "for the frustration and inconvenience" in a statement posted to Twitter Thursday night, saying that the web vendor has addressed issues with the site.
It added that 60,000 people were able to book appointments successfully, and that a small number of additional appointments would be posted over the next several day before the next round at larger sites becomes available next week.
Dozens of those stymied by the state’s failing webpages expressed frustration to WBUR through an online survey form.
"The site keeps crashing (either with the 'Bad Gateway' error or 'This Application Crashed')," James Kamitses, 74, of Wellesley, wrote in response at 8:40 a.m. "Please tell the MA COVID website administrators about the queuing system which the MFA recently used when they opened up their on-line reservation system for visits in March. My wait was an hour but it was orderly and worked well. The same system was used when I got tickets to a performance of Hamilton. This is NOT ROCKET SCIENCE. I am stunned at how unprepared the MA website has been!"
Adams recalled when a few state-sponsored vaccine sites added open appointments last week, people were hustling to claim them. The increased traffic made it hard for some to access the online signup forms, and Adams’ aggregator couldn’t scrape the newest appointment information from the pages either.
“Everybody was slamming that website at 9 a.m. When I went and tried to scrape that data every five minutes, things were timing out because it was just taking too long,” she said last week. “To its credit, the Massachusetts site didn’t keel over and pass out for a while. It was just slow.”
On Thursday morning, Adams said, "Obviously, [the crashes today are] worse since we’re opening the floodgates to a larger demographic and statewide.”
As the vaccine rollout includes larger and younger populations that are more internet savvy, Adams worried these slowdowns might hit with greater frequency and intensity if the current web infrastructure doesn’t scale up and certain weaknesses aren’t addressed.
Adams created MACovidVaccines.com to make it easier for people to find appointments, but said her website might also help manage traffic by quickly showing which sites have availability. That way, she said, people aren’t constantly loading and reloading dozens of pages trying to find a slot.
“This isn’t surprising,” she said Thursday. Her website ran without interruptions all morning. “It’s frustrating that our site is resilient enough to handle the traffic, but official websites aren’t.”
Although the Department of Public Health did not respond to requests for comment for this story on whether or how it will approach upgrades to its servers or websites, the state previously launched a similar website designed to help people find appointments near them, and state officials have said they are working on improving the web experience for vaccine seekers.
Neither Adams’ nor the state’s webpage can show appointment information from every one of the hundreds of vaccine sites in Massachusetts. Many clinics and pharmacies have their own websites, and some systems, like Walgreens, require users to log in first. Other systems require users to fill out several forms before displaying appointment availability. Information aggregators like Adams’ site, which scrape data from other websites, can’t always access information when it’s behind so many barriers.
As a result, Adams’ website only lists a few vaccine clinics, many of which are mass vaccination sites, and the state’s website lacks information for many clinics.
Luckily, Adams said there’s an easy workaround – if everyone gets on board. It's called an API. Essentially, this system allows websites to send raw data to developers who request it. That would help both her website and the state’s vaccine finder site, she said.
But every individual clinic, pharmacy or vaccination site with its own website would have to implement its own API. Each would also have to find its own way to scale up to meet greater traffic demands, either by upgrading to web hosting services from companies like Amazon or Google or purchasing upgrades from current hosting services.
CIC Health said earlier this week that it was ready for an influx of web traffic. Rodrigo Martinez, chief marketing and experience officer, said the company was well prepared. CIC Health also has made appointment information easily visible to developers, but Martinez said APIs are a good idea.
“Anything we can do to make it easier we should be looking into – whether it’s us or the state,” he said.
For smaller vaccine providers, including community health clinics, that run their own websites, it might be more of an ask. Dr. Sheena Sharma runs a clinic in Webster that uses its own software to manage appointments. Although APIs are not hard to implement, she worried this could create security vulnerabilities that hackers might exploit.
“If you open things up, you’d better be careful of what you let in,” she said.
Her clinic was already the target of malicious web attacks and spent thousands of dollars in the last week to beat them back and bolster web security. There is a need for a system to centralize vaccine appointment information in the state, Sharma said.
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This article was originally published on February 18, 2021.
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