A firsthand experience with ‘rocky’ vaccine registration system

Like many friends with elderly parents living in Massachusetts, I set my alarm for midnight on Jan. 27, the day vaccine registrations for...

Like many friends with elderly parents living in Massachusetts, I set my alarm for midnight on Jan. 27, the day vaccine registrations for those 75 and older were set to open. At the sound of my alarm and still burrowed underneath my covers, I jumped on the Massachusetts COVID-19 vaccine location map to find a site near my parents’ home in Belchertown.

I quickly found the choices were few: CVS in Greenfield, UMass Amherst, the Bangs Center in Amherst, and the Northampton Senior Center. Further complicating the process, each of these locations had a different website associated with it, so I had to check each website every few minutes to see if there were any vaccine openings. There were none. I didn’t know if registrations weren’t open yet or if they were already full.

Around 5 a.m., I finally had some luck. Registration for both the Bangs Center and the Northampton Senior Center, as well as many senior and community centers and Gillette Stadium, was through a common portal (maimmunizations.org). I was able to log onto the website and fill out a lengthy registration form to get my parents a vaccination appointment at the Bangs Center.

The only day the center was offering vaccinations was Jan. 28, which seemed odd given that the vaccinations for those ages 75-plus were supposed to begin on Feb. 1, but since the website indicated that activated groups of Phase 2 could register for vaccinations, I jumped on the opportunity and scheduled both my parents for late in the day on Jan. 28.

Later that afternoon, my parents called to let me know that their vaccination appointment had been cancelled. When I called to ask why, I was told the elderly couldn’t be vaccinated until Feb. 1. I pointed out that the website clearly allowed activated Phase 2 groups to register, but I was told there was a discrepancy in what the state of Massachusetts immunization portal stated and what the Bangs Center was allowing (only Phase 1), and thus all appointments made on behalf of elderly parents would be cancelled.

Consequently, numerous elderly individuals who had also registered at the Bangs Center for vaccinations on Jan. 28 had their appointments cancelled simply because it was 96 hours too early to vaccinate the elderly.

My friend Meg had a similarly difficult time finding a vaccination appointment for her mom. Meg’s mom lives in Falmouth, and both Meg and her cousin spent several hours trying to find appointments within 100 miles of her mom’s house.

After striking out on both Stop and Shop and Hannaford’s vaccination websites, Meg found some open vaccination slots at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield. Because each vaccination website requires adding the same patient information each time, including an upload of insurance cards, Meg spent the better part of 30 minutes getting her mother’s registration information entered, only to find her selected vaccination appointment had disappeared because somebody else had taken the slot in the time it had taken her to complete the paperwork.

What a disaster these first days of vaccine rollout for the elderly have been in Massachusetts. Massachusetts has created a complex, fragmented vaccine registration system with numerous online portals that require individuals to upload their personal information with each new attempted registration.

The information on these websites is confusing and at times incorrect, which led to numerous elderly individuals signing up for vaccine appointments in Amherst, only to have these appointments cancelled. But with more than 4,000 new COVID cases in Massachusetts each day, and those age 65 and older making up nearly 80% of COVID deaths, whoever thought it might be a good idea to cancel vaccinations for the elderly because they were scheduled four days too soon?

None of these vaccination scheduling debacles speak to the thousands of elderly residents of Massachusetts who don’t have the luxury of adult children to navigate the complicated state vaccination websites. Navigating multiple vaccine websites and uploading copies of insurance cards will present a problem for many elderly residents.

The state must work to improve the availability and accessibility of vaccines for the elderly in the coming days. Massachusetts currently ranks 31st among states in the number of people vaccinated per capita, well behind all other New England states. One way to improve that metric is to increase the number of vaccination sites statewide, especially for those in rural areas.

Massachusetts must also invest in a system of care navigators to help the elderly with vaccination websites when they are unable to do so on their own.

Finally, Massachusetts must create a one-stop vaccination website so people aren’t navigating multiple websites at once looking for appointments and getting locked out of appointment times because of the paperwork that must be resubmitted with every registration attempt.

The need for improved vaccination systems will only increase in coming weeks as those 65 and older become eligible for vaccinations later in February, and then more broadly through Phase 2 and 3. It is unfortunate that it is the elderly in Massachusetts that are the first to suffer through the rocky, early phases of Massachusetts’ vaccine implementation process.

Kristin Mattocks, PhD, MPH, of Shutesbury, is associate dean for veterans affairs and professor of population and quantitative health science at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

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Newsrust: A firsthand experience with ‘rocky’ vaccine registration system
A firsthand experience with ‘rocky’ vaccine registration system
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