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Vaccine Rollout Pushes County Health Department Websites Offline

Florida counties experienced trouble with vaccination signup websites over the weekend, leading to confusion over appointment times, frustrated senior citizens, and overwhelmed local public health officials.

a medical professional pulls vaccine into a syringe
As the administration of COVID-19 vaccines advances, local health departments have hit technical road bumps as county vaccination sites continue to crash.

Florida counties, including Broward County, Pinellas County and Hillsborough County, experienced several outages over the weekend, resulting in local health officials scrambling to get their sites back online as quickly as possible.

“In Pinellas County, we have a population of 250,000+ individuals that are 65 years old and older,” Tom Lovino, a public information officer at the Pinellas County Department of Health, said. “We did anticipate a great demand for the vaccine; however, we did not anticipate that our system was not robust enough to handle it.”

The health department’s response to this issue was to pull the website down altogether so the IT department could build a new site equipped to handle the large influx of website visitors.

“We received 3,000 vaccines from the state,” Mr. Lovino said, “which have been completely administered despite technical problems with the site.” The county was able to achieve this, he said, by creating a call center for seniors to schedule appointments.

The hope moving forward, according to Mr. Lovino, is to have the site back up and running soon so appointments can be scheduled accordingly when the next batch of vaccines are delivered.

As for Broward County, the local department of health tweeted on Sunday afternoon, “anyone with an appointment who was not served at the state-run vaccination sites on Sunday will be contacted and rescheduled.”

Anyone with an appointment who was not served at the DOH-Broward COVID-19 Vaccination Sites today will be contacted and rescheduled. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience. — FLHealthBroward (@FLHealthBroward) January 3, 2021
Broward Vice Mayor Michael Udine also commented on the issue in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, saying, “the state’s had a while to prepare for this, and the fact that they can’t even get basic logistics figured out is extremely concerning and frustrating,” he said. “The way this has been rolled out has been really concerning on a lot of levels. Setting up a website should not be a huge issue. We need to get a larger supply of the vaccine, but how are we going to get it into people’s arms if they can’t sign up?”

As for Hillsborough County’s health department, they encountered problems with their registration website and call line on Monday morning, saying the registration system and phone center were experiencing service interruptions and that delays were to be expected. Not long after that statement was made, the county’s health department tweeted that its online scheduling service was not available and encouraged seniors to make phone appointments.

UPDATE: The website vendor has made the online scheduling service unavailable at this time. Appointments are still available by calling the dedicated phone line. Please expect delays when attempting to make an appointment as demand continues to stay at a high level. — #HillsboroughCares (@HillsboroughFL) January 4, 2021
Later that evening, the county announced it was temporarily discontinuing its online appointment system, moving all vaccine registrations to its phone system and expanding call hours.

UPDATE: Appointments are still available. Due to high demand, the external registration system and phone center are experiencing service interruptions. Please expect continued delays when attempting to make an appointment as work continues to mitigate the technical issues. — #HillsboroughCares (@HillsboroughFL) January 4, 2021
The hope, according to Hillsborough county public health officials, is to start distributing its 1,500 doses of the vaccine as soon as possible. They hope to receive 9,000 more vaccines by the end of the week.

Katya Maruri is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in global strategic communications from Florida International University.