Story about how bad software helped slow coronavirus vaccine distribution

The first time Mary Ann Price logged into her employer’s system to schedule a vaccine, she found an appointment three days later at a nearby Walgreens pharmacy. She woke up the next day to an email saying it had been canceled.

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So she logged in again and found an opening that afternoon at the local surgical hospital.

“When I showed up, they said they wouldn’t honor it—they were only doing their own staff,” Price says. But when she tried a third time to make an appointment, she was blocked from doing so: according to the system, she was already in the middle of getting a vaccine.

Price is 70 and works for the West Virginia state senate, which has deemed her an essential worker. Her state has been lauded for its rollout of vaccinations—so far 10% of its citizens have been given at least one shot. 

Story about how bad software helped slow coronavirus vaccine distribution
Story about how bad software helped slow coronavirus vaccine distribution

Her frustration is echoed by millions of Americans who have struggled to get vaccines through various chaotic systems. But unlike others in some states, she wasn’t encountering these problems with a third-party consumer service like Eventbrite, or even through an antiquated government system. She was on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s brand-new, $44 million website called VAMS—the Vaccine Administration Management System, built by the consulting firm Deloitte.

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It’s no secret that the US is struggling to distribute coronavirus vaccines; some states haven’t received enough doses, and finding an appointment on sign-up websites has been a chaotic experience. A new report in MIT Technology Review looks at why, almost a year into the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seemed totally unprepared for actually getting shots into people’s arms.

According to Technology Review, the agency knew it needed a robust, one-stop shop that could be used by patients, clinics, employers, and government officials. But instead, the CDC spent $44 million on something called the Vaccine Administration Management System —-VAMS— built by consulting firm Deloitte (via no-bid contracts) which was so inadequate that it has driven some states to try to patch together their own vaccine distribution systems instead.

Clinic workers in Connecticut, Virginia, and other states say the system is notorious for randomly canceled appointments, unreliable registration, and problems that lock staff out of the dashboard they’re supposed to use to log records. The CDC acknowledges there are multiple flaws it’s working to fix, although it attributes some of the problems to user error.

And it’s not just a matter of elderly people not being tech-savvy enough to navigate the site (although that is a huge issue); many doctors’ offices who tried to use VAMS have mostly given up. Courtney Rowe of Connecticut Children’s Medical Center told Technology Review that she had become de facto tech support for many patients trying to set up appointments:

“It won’t work on Internet Explorer; it only works in Chrome. The ‘Next’ button is all the way down and to the right, so if you’re on a cell phone, you literally can’t see it,” says Rowe. “In the first round, people using VAMS mostly had advanced degrees. If you’re 75 and someone asks you to log into VAMS, there is zerowayit’ll happen without help.”

Take a deep breath before diving into this infuriating report about how broken government systems are contributing to the mess around vaccine distribution.

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