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Government Websites Still Unprepared for Traffic Surges

When the rush for unemployment insurance crashed government websites in 2020, we learned how to navigate traffic surges in a crisis. So why weren’t sites prepared to handle vaccine appointments?

Worker directs cars waiting for COVID-19 vaccine
Shutterstock/Ringo Chiu
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, over half of state unemployment websites experienced significant outages as nearly 22 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the span of a few weeks. At the time, part of the explanation for these outages was that many state government agencies had simply never anticipated receiving such a high volume of traffic. Others noted that they were still running outdated systems and had not yet migrated to the cloud. But a year later, many state and local government agencies are back in the exact same position, as numerous government websites have crashed as residents flocked online to make vaccination appointments.

These problems have been seen across the nation and have continued for months. In January, multiple Florida county government websites — including those in Broward, Pinellas and Hillsborough — crashed as older adults went online to try to book appointments for the first available vaccines. In February, the Massachusetts state scheduling website crashed the week that people age 65 and older became eligible for the vaccine. And in March, the Cook County, Ill., vaccine registration website crashed after they made vaccines available to residents with certain underlying health conditions. During its peak, the website received half a million requests per second, according to officials.

Part of the problem was that in the absence of an effective federal solution to the vaccine scheduling problem, each state or local government health agency had to develop its own solution. The result was significant confusion for the average individual because there was no single website where they could go to register for a vaccine appointment or get on the list for an appointment. The confusion was particularly acute in some states, like New Jersey, where there was no statewide solution and different counties, municipalities and health-care systems each offered their own separate scheduling platforms.

Another problem was that many states, including California, Colorado, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, opted to use the same ill-prepared vendor for their online vaccine scheduling system. The software maker — a self-described “tiny little nonprofit” which had originally created software to streamline flu vaccine consent forms in schools in Maryland — was insufficiently prepared to manage and support a national vaccination effort. The vendor blamed “a sudden and unprecedented surge in traffic to the site,” a flimsy excuse given the anticipated high demand for vaccinations among Americans. Local health officials in California blamed these software glitches for some of the delays in rolling out the vaccine in the state.

Indeed, one of the few places where individuals have been able to reliably go online and schedule a vaccine appointment is not with these government websites but with one of the national pharmacies, such as Walmart, CVS and RiteAid, participating in the vaccine rollout. For example, as of April 1, CVS had administered 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses across 2,000 stores in 44 states, and Walmart was administering vaccines in 3,800 locations across the United States.

A key element to their successful vaccine appointment websites has not just been sufficient server and staffing capacity, but also good design. Indeed, most businesses understand that having user-friendly interfaces and strong back ends are critical to their operational success. CVS, for example, has made several design updates to its website to make it easier for customers to schedule a vaccination appointment. On the CVS website, customers see information about who is eligible for the vaccine, which stores are offering shots, whether any appointments are available and when the information was last updated. In contrast, in Massachusetts, residents seeking a vaccination had to first fill out pages of personal information before they could even see available appointment times, leading to many frustrated users who had to continue repeatedly entering the same information every time the website crashed or they wanted to check again for an available slot.

It is almost certain that there will be future unprecedented events that generate similar surges. From building more scalable, cloud-based websites, to selecting more qualified private-sector partners, to using better design, there are many lessons that government agencies can learn from these failures to prepare for future challenges.
Daniel Castro is the vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) and director of the Center for Data Innovation. Before joining ITIF, he worked at the Government Accountability Office where he audited IT security and management controls.