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The Technology 202: Website crashes and other tech problems plague early coronavirus vaccine rollout

Technical problems are already hampering the early rollout of the coronavirus vaccine. 

Websites in multiple large Florida counties buckled from a surge of traffic in recent days as seniors attempted to book appointments for their vaccinations. Many were instead met with error messages. Outages were reported in Broward, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Other seniors thought they secured appointments online, only to be disappointed when they showed up to receive the vaccine. David Kornbluh, an 85-year-old retired IT professional, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that he and his wife booked a 10 a.m. appointment Monday morning in Coconut Creek. But when they got there, they were told they couldn’t get a shot because they didn’t have an electronic confirmation. 

“I don’t want to die because I couldn’t get vaccinated because of an IT glitch,” he told the Florida paper. “They just put up a website that was incapable of supporting the kind of volume that they were going to have. It’s incompetent state management.” Kornbluh said he and his wife were unable to rebook their appointments since the Broward County website then went down. 

Local health departments across the country are scrambling to deploy vaccination appointment booking systems. 

Tech experts say the problems are in part due the lack of national coordination on building websites to distribute vaccines. Instead local public health officials with limited budgets and access to technical resources are taking on the challenge of rolling out websites that are able to handle the massive demand for vaccine bookings. 

“State and local health agencies are doing a Herculean task right now, where they're coordinating the fastest vaccine rollout in modern history in the U.S., and they're doing it without leadership from the federal government,” said Raphael Lee, who directs the health program at U.S. Digital Response, which coordinates tech volunteers to help governments respond to crises. 

The result has been a patchwork of different types of websites and web forms – and many technical problems throughout the country. 

Harris County in Texas had to take down its website after people across the county who were not yet eligible began to sign up for inoculations. Currently only health-care workers and people over the age of 65 with severe health problems are eligible in the county. 

Hospital systems have also reported similar issues. Mass General Brigham, the largest health-care system in Massachusetts, had to shut down its employee vaccine booking website after it crashed due to a surge in demand from employees. 

More broadly, relying on websites to book coronavirus vaccines risks leaving behind some populations that need the vaccine the most. Only 73 percent of Americans over the age of 65 use the Internet, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Lee said it's important for counties to ensure their websites are properly working so phone lines aren't tied up. 

Some health departments are turning to consumer tech services to book appointments — raising other concerns. 

Rather than building their own websites, some counties are turning to services such as Eventbrite or social media to help people schedule their vaccines. But it’s not clear that Eventbrite which is known for helping people book tickets to concerts or conferences is equipped to handle sensitive health data. The company did not respond to a request for comment. 

Government websites have been famously plagued by technical issues for years.

Experts say counties can learn from those mistakes. 

Early in the pandemic, websites for unemployment benefits crashed throughout the country as record numbers of Americans sought support as they lost their jobs. 

Lee tells me that health agencies should be praised for being creative in thinking about how to use off-the-shelf solutions that people are already familiar with to roll out the vaccine. But he warned that they should be looking closely at ensuring that the systems can keep people's data secure, and communicate with other vaccine management platforms. USDR has developed a set of criteria for local health departments to consider when choosing tech vendors, and it's also working as “connective tissue” to keep counties updated on what's working well in other states and cities across the United States, Lee says.  

“Every county and state has a slightly different plan, so it’s hard to say there’s one size fits all solutions that people can just grab off the shelf,” Lee said. “But we can say if you haven’t thought about this, you probably should.”

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A high-profile health care venture backed by Amazon will shut down next month. 

Haven, which was created two years ago by the e-commerce giant, JPMorgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway, announced the shut down in a brief online statement, Jay Greene reports. Haven aimed to address rising health care costs and improve patient outcomes, and its closure is a sharp departure from the early ambition and excitement surrounding the initiative. 

“Moving forward, Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and JPMorgan Chase & Co. will leverage these insights and continue to collaborate informally to design programs tailored to address the specific needs of their own employee populations,” Haven wrote. “Haven will end its independent operations at the end of February 2021. The company had 57 employees. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). 

Despite the shutdown, expect Amazon to continue to have a strong presence in health care. The company in November unveiled the Amazon Pharmacy, and it has acquired companies in the health care space such as PillPack.

Tech executives were among the nearly 200 CEOs who urged Congress to certify Biden's electoral victory. 

The co-founders of Lyft, WeWork chief executive Sandeep Mathrani and IAC chief executive Joey Levin were among the signatories of the letter. Sent by the Partnership for New York City, it called for a smooth transition of power as President Trump and some of his Republican allies continue to challenge the election results, the Wall Street Journal's Emily Glazer reports. 

“Attempts to thwart or delay this process run counter to the essential tenets of our democracy,” the letter said. “Our duly elected leaders deserve the respect and bipartisan support of all Americans at a moment when we are dealing with the worst health and economic crises in modern history.”

Executives from BlackRock, Deloitte, JetBlue Airways and Pfeizer also signed the letter, as at least 13 Republican senators are expected to vote against certifying the electoral college vote, according to my colleagues Kevin Uhrmacher and John Muyskens.  

The Business Roundtable, whose members include Bezos and Apple CEO Tim Cook, also said it opposes efforts to delay or overturn the certification.

“With our country in the midst of a pandemic, business leaders recognize that ongoing division and distrust in our political system threatens the economic recovery and job creation our country desperately needs,” according to a statement Monday.

Slack had a meltdown on the first workday of 2021. 

The popular workplace communication app confirmed yesterday that people were having trouble connecting to the platform but shared little specifics about the scope of the outage, my colleagues Hamza Shaban and Rachel Lerman report. The platform has emerged as a key communications channel for remote workers during the coronavirus pandemic, and the outage sent IT professionals scrambling to ensure workers had access to other messaging tools.                        

The outages appeared to be widespread, according to the website Downdetector, which displays outage reports in many metropolitan hubs. The disruption affected users throughout the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil, France, Japan and beyond.

The service interruptions were first reported at 10:15 a.m. Eastern time, and the service was mostly working for some users again by mid-day. By 2:30 p.m. Eastern, Slack confirmed that service was largely restored. Slack didn't say what caused the down time, but it noted that it affected people's ability to log in, send messages or share files. 

“We know how important it is for people to stay connected and we are working hard to get everyone running as normal,” the company said in a statement on Monday. 

People on Twitter said the outage reflected their feelings about returning to work. 

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– The Washington Post’s David Ignatius will interview Palantir chief executive Alex Karp to discuss how the company is helping foreign governments manage their coronavirus responses on Jan. 7 at 10 a.m. EST. 

– CES will take place virtually from Jan. 11-14.

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