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Officials Frustrated Over Vaccine Management Tech

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Software - it's actually at the heart of the vaccination program. But glitches, bugs and website fiascos have led to frustration among vaccine-seekers and clinic managers. Twenty-seven states paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to one nonprofit for a vaccine management program that did not work. Reporter Angus Chen comes to us with the story of how this program came to be and a look at how it fell short in one state.

ANGUS CHEN, BYLINE: Vaccine eligibility finally came to Tracey Lowenstein's group - people in Massachusetts 65 or older and those with two preexisting conditions. So she grabbed her laptop and her phone and prepared to pounce on a spot.

TRACEY LOWENSTEIN: You know, I'm sitting on my couch with my whole little, like, command station going, full of excitement and hope.

CHEN: Lowenstein went to the state vaccine website, where she hoped to book an appointment. The software she had to use is called PrepMod. Massachusetts bought it to streamline the coronavirus vaccine rollout. But Lowenstein found herself filling out the same online form over and over as the website crashed on her repeatedly. She'd get an error message that PrepMod had stopped working or that too many people were on the site. So she'd try again. She'd click, click and crash. This went on for hours.

LOWENSTEIN: This was infuriating. It was really and truly eight hours just in this constant cycle. I was cursing. I won't tell you on the radio, but oh, yeah.

CHEN: At the end of those eight hours, she was one of the few who got a spot. But she's hardly the only person seething over PrepMod. California and Virginia switched to PrepMod after struggling with their free program provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But then, like many of the 27 states that purchased it, they had issues with the software. Overbooked clinics and duplicate data entries are two problems health officials reported. Shaun McAuliffe, a local board of health director in Massachusetts, says the program just crashes on him when trying to manage patient information.

SHAUN MCAULIFFE: I'd enter the data. I'd get my error message, and I'm like, my God, I still can't get it right.

CHEN: McAuliffe says sometimes PrepMod works well, but a lot of time, it's just hard to use. And whenever he runs a clinic now, he worries the system will fail once again.

MCAULIFFE: I'm taking a risk running a clinic tomorrow because I don't know if I'm going to be able to use PrepMod.

CHEN: A nonprofit called the Maryland Partnership for Prevention created PrepMod. For decades, this nonprofit improved flu vaccinations in public schools. And it created a small software program to make that easier. When the pandemic came around, Tiffany Tate, the nonprofit's executive director, realized her program could be repurposed.

TIFFANY TATE: When the pandemic came along is when we said, well, let's evolve it and add a few more features and then make it available to everyone.

CHEN: Massachusetts paid over $400,000 for the program in total. Tate says part of the problem in that state was a million people became eligible for the vaccine at once and rushed the PrepMod website. The page wasn't prepared for that kind of traffic.

TATE: And that's something that we've been working on since the moment that it happened. So this is an opportunity to apologize and to do better.

CHEN: Part of the issue might be that PrepMod wasn't built from the ground up to be pandemic software. It's a flu vaccine program adapted for the coronavirus. Olivia Adams is a software developer who created her own vaccine website while on maternity leave to help people find appointments in Massachusetts.

OLIVIA ADAMS: When you're thinking about the flu vaccine every year, you don't have a line of 3,000 people outside of Target at 6 a.m. trying to get their flu vaccine the first day it's available.

CHEN: The people who are used to creating medical software aren't the same that are dealing with things like concert ticket sales, Adams says. So they might not have the experience to get everything right. Even so, she says the PrepMod developers and Massachusetts could have predicted these issues and stopped them from happening in the first place.

ADAMS: I think that this was very foreseeable, and I'm surprised that we didn't see it coming and do more about it.

CHEN: For now, PrepMod is all her state has. She only hopes its developers will use the feedback and continue to improve the program so it doesn't hold the vaccine rollout back anymore.

For NPR News, I'm Angus Chen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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