Utah demand for COVID-19 vaccine is ‘off the charts,’ as seekers overwhelm Salt Lake County’s online sign-up

County mayor apologizes for failure of health department’s website.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Davis County School District began COVID-19 Pfizer vaccinations for its teachers at the Davis County Legacy Center in Farmington on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. Utahns ran into issues as they tried to sign up online to be vaccinated in Salt Lake County on Wednesday, when county residents ages 70 and older could begin booking appointments.

As seniors began to schedule their coronavirus vaccinations in a chaotic first day of registrations around the state, one pattern emerged: Demand for the vaccine is high.

Salt Lake County filled all 25,000 of its appointments within hours of opening them to residents ages 70 and up — even after technical glitches crashed both the registration website and the county’s entire phone system on Wednesday morning.

“Anyone who was attempting to get on this morning to get one of those prized appointments — they were frustrated,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said in a news conference Wednesday.

Tens of thousands of people visited the county’s vaccine registration website when it launched at 8 a.m., Wilson said, overloading the system — which already had last-minute capacity issues.

Federal officials late Tuesday authorized states to release more of the vaccine immediately, rather than saving follow-up doses for those who already have received one of the two required shots. That new supply led county officials to expand the scheduling window, which burdened the website beyond what had been planned when it was created, said Gary Edwards, director of the Salt Lake County Health Department.

[Read more: How to sign up to receive the coronavirus vaccine]

Then residents proved to be surprisingly prepared to rush the site; there were many reports of people enlisting friends and family to visit the website simultaneously when it launched, hoping for a better chance at one of the coveted slots.

“We underestimated [the number of] multiple attempts within a family unit,” Wilson said.

Once the website was overwhelmed, residents took to the scheduling hotline — 1-800-468-SHOT — which filled up the county’s CenturyLink allocation and caused the county’s phone system to crash as well, said Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the health department.

Surging demand

Around the state, “the demand is off the charts,” state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn said in a Facebook Live session with The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday afternoon.

As of Wednesday morning, multiple local health departments had filled all available vaccine appointments for seniors. The Bear River Health Department website reported that it was hosting its first clinic for patients age 70 and up on Thursday — it is using some extra doses provided by an area hospital to start vaccinating seniors before the Jan. 18 start date announced by the state — but the clinic was full and the department was not planning to announce more vaccination dates on Wednesday.

Utah County’s website reported it would begin scheduling vaccinations for patients age 70 and up until 6 p.m. Wednesday — but below that announcement was a link to 70-and-up vaccine clinics already happening Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, all of which were full. The Southeast Utah Health Department posted a link to a vaccine scheduler, which reported all appointments had been filled as of Wednesday morning.

For those having trouble getting a vaccination appointment, Dunn advised, “Don’t panic,” and keep pursuing appointments through local health districts. As more doses arrives, she said, “you will get a vaccine.”

Salt Lake County filled all appointments through February, accounting for all 30,000 of the doses federal and state authorities have said it will receive for now. Of those, 25,000 are going to seniors over age 69 and 5,000 remain for health care workers who have yet to receive a shot.

But the county could get more vaccine as manufacturing ramps up, Edwards said. Residents ages 70 and up who did not secure an appointment on Wednesday should visit the website or call each week, to learn whether appointments have opened up.

Appointments were taking place between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day. The seemingly short window was still enough to use each expected dose within a week of its arrival in Utah, Edwards said, and it allows the county to easily add slots to each day if the clinics receive more than expected on any given week.

The overwhelming demand among Utahns ages 70 and up may nullify pending questions as to whether the state will immediately offer the vaccine to anyone younger. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday advised states to open vaccinations to anyone age 65 and older, to ensure all available doses were being used.

Gov. Spencer Cox’s office on Tuesday said he planned to decide by Wednesday night whether to expand availability in Utah, but on Wednesday, a spokesperson said no final decision would be announced until Thursday at the earliest.

Salt Lake County’s crash

The holdup in Salt Lake County early Wednesday annoyed residents who have been waiting for access to vaccine.

“It’s been very troublesome,” said Salt Lake City resident Jen Kious. “I’ve been waiting with bated breath to try to get my two 80-year-old parents vaccines. I got up at 8 a.m., and it hasn’t worked.”

Kenneth Sperling said that filling out most of the online form was “straightforward,” but “the problem is that when you get down to the bottom and you go to hit register, it says, ‘Select visit date.’ There is no box on the form for a visit date.”

“You get it all filled out, you hit submit, and then you’re stuck in cyberspace,” he said.

Kious ran into that same problem, and others. She said she forgot to enter her parent’s gender and was flagged — and when she tried to add it, all the other information she’d previously entered was erased.

Kious said she’s seen changes on the page as she’s tried to register. “They’re clearly trying to fix it.”

On a subsequent attempt to register, she said, the request for a visit date came up before the rest of the form, “but then when we got to the end and hit register, it gave an error statement saying, ‘Max number for this date.’ So it had obviously given us times that were already full.”

When she tried a different date, she received a message telling her she’d already registered. “So I actually don’t know if I’m registered or not. .... I have the utmost respect for the public health department. They have worked incredibly hard during this pandemic. I would not want to criticize them. But it’s very frustrating because I’ve been trying to hard to protect my parents.”

Diane Orr said the process has been “unclear” for seniors trying to register. “I’m 76, but I’ve been trying to help people in their 80s. They all tried to phone this morning, but, of course, it’s busy.”

She directed the seven octogenarians to the county website, but they’ve run into the same problems. “People are baffled. You fill out the form, and then there’s no information about where to go from there,” Orr said. “I would like to see people — especially in that age group — not get befuddled by all this.”

Sperling said he was able to register successfully by about 9:15 a.m.; Orr said she was continuing to run into problems through midday.

John Keahey, a former Salt Lake Tribune staffer, ran into similar problems. “When I finished the form, it would tell me that the time I selected was not available,” he said. “I went back two or three times in response to ‘not available’ messages and when I selected the third one, the form went away. I don’t know if I am registered or not. No indication.”

Keahey said that he believes he was able to register in a subsequent attempt shortly before 10 a.m., “but in the confusion, I didn’t record the date I finally chose that was accepted” — an issue Kious also ran into. Keahey is hoping the county health department will send email reminders.

The Salt Lake County Health Department’s Facebook page is full of complaints about the online registration system. Some posted that they believe that they eventually got through — and received confirmation emails — but the comments include:

• “Terrible planning for this. They should have known that thousands of people would want to register for the vaccine yet the form does not work and the phone number just gives a busy signal.”

• “I am elderly and have serious chronic heart disease. Do better.”

• “Just praying it worked.”

• “It’s a complete mess. I had hoped Salt Lake County would have been more prepared.”

The county added two servers to handle Wednesday’s traffic and plans to have four new servers as the vaccine is offered to more people, likely causing traffic to rise even more, Edwards said.

“We will know whether four servers will be enough by the end of the week,” he said.

Salt Lake County was not the only health department to experience technical difficulties. The Weber-Morgan Health Department website was down all of Wednesday, and a spokesperson could not be reached for comment; it wasn’t clear whether it had begun to schedule vaccines for seniors. The Central Utah Health Department posted a link to register for a vaccine, but it requires a registration code to proceed, and no registration code was immediately visible on the website.

Health departments for Tooele County and the Tri-County area of northeast Utah both directed website users to the state’s general vaccine information page, which doesn’t allow patients to schedule vaccines. The San Juan County Health Department website, listed by Google as having an expired security certificate, also linked back to the state’s website.

It is possible some local health departments do not plan to begin scheduling until Monday, said Rossina Lake, spokeswoman for Cox. He delegated to local health departments responsibility for all coronavirus vaccine distribution occurring outside of health care facilities and nursing homes, which account for nearly all of the 116,659 doses administered in Utah as of Wednesday.

In a news conference Wednesday, Intermountain Healthcare officials reported they had given roughly 26,000 first doses and 4,000 second doses of the vaccine.