COVID-19 briefing: Patience a must as scheduling vaccine appointments for pilot program faces high demand

In this Monday, July 27, 2020 file photo, a nurse prepares a shot as a study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway in Binghamton, N.Y. Photo: AP Photo/Hans Pennink. In this Monday, July 27, 2020 file photo, a nurse prepares a shot as a study of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., gets underway in Binghamton, N.Y.

Tommy Wiita
Updated: January 19, 2021 06:04 PM
Created: January 19, 2021 02:54 PM

On Tuesday, Minnesota health officials discussed the vaccine pilot program, which includes vaccinations for teachers, child care workers and Minnesotans ages 65 and over, and the issues they are working through as the state's high demand has caused website issues and long waits on phone lines.

The website and phone line to make a vaccine appointment for those 65 and older opened up at noon and struggled to keep up with the demand by Minnesotans.

Once loaded, the website warned Minnesotans, "We are experiencing extremely high call volume and traffic to the vaccine registration page. The vendor is working to address these technical issues. Please check back momentarily."

At its peak, the website processed over 10,000 hits per second with overall traffic to the website at over 1.1 million hits as of 2 p.m.

"The traffic clearly exceeded expectations," said Minnesota IT Services Commissioner Tarek Tomes. "We intend to do a deep dive to improve the process moving forward," he added.

Tomes said the state was able to keep up with demand, but the provider had challenges with the registrations.

Minnesota website, phones struggle to keep up with demand for COVID-19 vaccine appointments

State health officials urge residents to attempt to make an appointment online before calling. A waitlist is possible, with new appointments opening at noon next Tuesday.

MDH Director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Prevention and Control Division, Kris Ehresmann, says Minnesotans will have to be patient through this process.

"Every shot in the arm is another step toward ending this pandemic," she said.

Ehresmann added that MDH will not have enough vaccine doses for everyone, however, the department is building a clinic network to make sure as many people as possible can be vaccinated when the overall supply increases.

Nine pilot sites — located in Andover, Brooklyn Center, Fergus Falls, Marshall, Mountain Iron, North Mankato, Rochester, St. Cloud and Thief River Falls — are now available to serve Minnesotans involved in the pilot program.

Even with the recent surges and issues, Tomes said over 6,100 appointments had been processed as of 2 p.m. 

Minnesota launches vaccine pilot program targeting schools, child care, 65+ populations

This week, MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm said about 12,000 doses are allotted to the program. The doses should be given Thursday through Sunday. Half of them will be given to teachers and child care providers, and the other half will be provided to seniors.

Tomes suggested Minnesotans wait in line if on the phone or waiting room online, as spots are still available. The state will update the public when all spots have been filled. Regarding issues going forward, Tomes said he doesn't expect this many issues in the future. He said he expects the process to be "much, much smoother" next week, noting Tuesday's traffic was "extraordinarily high."

Minnesotans who didn't get an appointment right away shouldn't feel discouraged, according to Ehresmann. More vaccines will be in stock and ready to go next week. However, she noted that the number of eligible Minnesotans is around 1 million people and far exceeds the number of vaccine doses available, so Minnesotans need to understand that and be patient.

Other notes from the call that you should know about:

  • Ehresmann noted that some Minnesota Zoo staff are included in the Phase 1A of doses due to some of the staff providing emergency medical services to visitors. However, only those EMS-certified staff are in Phase 1A, not all zoo staff.
  • If someone accepted for an appointment doesn't show up for their respective site location on Thursday or Friday, someone from the waitlist will have a chance to fill that spot.
  • The pilot program locations are sent only to those with confirmed appointments to help ensure no walk-ins.

Ehresmann released the following statement Tuesday afternoon:

"What we are seeing is extraordinarily pent-up demand for vaccine. Nearly 1 million Minnesotans age 65 and over are trying to get a few thousand doses of vaccines that have been made available to Minnesota. We recognize many Minnesotans waited a long time today and we thank them for their patience.

"Unfortunately, there is no way to get around the fact there will be frustrations as we continue to deal with the extreme supply shortage.

"But every shot in the arm of another Minnesotan puts us one step closer to crushing COVID-19 and meeting the goal of getting millions of Minnesotans vaccinated as quickly and as safely as possible. These pilot clinics are about helping us figure out what works and what doesn’t work in these settings. We are learning every step of the way, and this process will set us on a path for a more extensive network of community vaccination clinics in Minnesota communities as the federal government increases vaccine supply.

"Today taught us important lessons – and so will each successive day of this pilot program. Since registration opened at noon today, we’ve experienced continuous high call volume to the vaccine registration call center and traffic to the web registration page. More than 232,000 calls have been processed through the call center as of 3:45 p.m., and at the peak the website was processing more than 10,000 hits per second.

"The state website handled the traffic well, though the vendor site that processes registrations experienced some slowdowns. The vendor temporarily closed the system to new users to better manage traffic, but the system never stopped processing appointments. We are investigating the web traffic patterns to determine what caused the slowdown, and we will put to work what we learn.

"As of 4:15 p.m., more than 5,000 Minnesotans had scheduled appointments for their first and second vaccine doses through the system, totaling nearly 11,000 appointments booked today. First dose appointments for up to 6,000 Minnesotans age 65 and older are available this week."

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