Minnesotans 65 and older clogged phone lines and crashed a state website Tuesday as they sought to make appointments for a new, limited supply of COVID-19 vaccine at nine test sites.
Online registration launched at noon but was disrupted within an hour as the website was overwhelmed with a peak of 10,000 hits per second. The site closed to new registrants at 2 p.m. in order to serve people stuck in a waiting queue, but in the end connected more than 5,000 people with vaccine appointments this Thursday through Saturday.
Another 4,000 people were on a waitlist for this week's appointments.
State IT Commissioner Tarek Tomes blamed a private vendor's web page that handled the registrations and promised a better experience when people sign up next Tuesday for next week's appointments. "We are going to do everything we can to take the lessons learned from this launch," Tomes said. "We absolutely expect this process to be much, much smoother in the future."
Some people called a state hotline and were greeted with automated messages saying, "Your call cannot be completed as dialed." Others received "502 Bad Gateway" error messages on the website, or at least proceeded to an online waiting room where they — indeed — waited.
"I sat there for more than 45 minutes, nothing happened," said Clifford Brown, 79, of Minneapolis. "I tried to refresh my screen and got the message that the application was 'offline for maintenance.' Later when I tried to connect again I received the message 'application error.' "
Gov. Tim Walz and other state leaders expected challenges with registration when they announced Monday they would be diverting 12,000 doses from this week's shipments of 60,000 to people 65 and older, and to teachers and child-care providers.
The diverted doses were split between senior citizens, who had to register for appointments through the state system, and educators whose appointments were arranged separately.
The rest will continue to be used on the priority group of health care workers, who are at elevated risk for infection with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and long-term care residents, who have suffered 64% of Minnesota's 5,945 COVID-19 deaths.
The Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday reported six more COVID-19 deaths and 922 diagnosed infections, raising the overall case count to 448,268.
Concerns about a post-holiday surge of infections eased, though. The positivity rate of COVID-19 diagnostic testing increased from 4.7% on Dec. 24 to 7.5% on Jan. 4. It has since declined to 5.4% — mimicking a blip that occurred after Thanksgiving as well.
Hospitalizations also declined. The 110 people with COVID-19 in intensive care beds in Minnesota hospitals on Monday was the lowest total since Sept. 29.
Minnesotans have been eagerly awaiting vaccine after months of restrictions on businesses and social gatherings, and mask-wearing requirements.
They similarly crashed a website this fall when Bloomington-based HealthPartners launched a trial of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which could soon receive federal approval.
Minnesota providers have so far received 516,675 doses of the approved two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, providing first doses to 200,130 people and second doses to 38,258 people. More than 46% of the available vaccine supply in the state has now been administered — with most of the remaining doses in transit or assigned to upcoming appointments.
Both vaccines are around 95% effective if given on schedule — with the Pfizer doses occurring three weeks apart and the Moderna doses occurring four weeks apart.
Dennis Christ, 79, of St. Paul said he was unable to obtain a vaccine appointment on Tuesday and that his wife was "ready to throw her phone through the window" when she tried to call for one.
The prostate cancer patient said it was going to be tough enough to secure vaccine under the state's original plan to expand access to people 75 and older and workers in critical front-line industries. The last-minute decision to add people in their 60s only made it harder for someone who is particularly vulnerable.
"This makes no sense at all," he said. "Will we still be waiting when [the governor] opens it up to 50-plus? Or everyone?"
Kris Ehresmann, state infectious disease director, said the state was pressured to expand to people 65 and older due to changes last week in federal vaccine priorities. Even with more time, she doubts the website would have handled the initial crush of interest from an age group of 918,000 people.
"So many people, so very interested, which is all wonderful," she said, "but very limited supply and limited spots."
State officials nonetheless pledged to figure out the breakdown in the online registration process, in which people entered the Minnesota COVID-19 vaccine website but were then handed off to a private website managed by Primary.Health. The San Francisco-based organization has experience in Minnesota, handling registrations for online COVID-19 testing as well.
More than 10,000 appointments were booked, when considering that people scheduled both their first and second doses of vaccine. Ehresmann said that offering the first public access to COVID-19 vaccine this week, even in limited supply, was an important first step toward broader public vaccinations to come.
Registration for next week's vaccine appointments is scheduled to start at noon Jan. 26. People on this week's waiting list will need to start over as the list does not carry over.
John Wodele, 73, of Minneapolis, said he was sympathetic as someone involved in state government leadership in the past, but wondered if the hassle was worth the payoff after struggling with the appointment website.
"Why put us through this call in or online scheduling for 12,000 shots," he said. "Nothing but frustration — one doesn't answer and the other doesn't work."
Others at least had a happy ending after long frustration. Joe Hirscher e-mailed the Star Tribune, upset that he had been in the online waiting room for nearly two hours while suspecting that there were no more appointments. Then he e-mailed 30 minutes later.
"My daughter hung in there and got me an appointment," he said. "I am shocked!"
Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744