Gov. Cox sees vaccine glitches as a good sign, as Salt Lake County seniors are frustrated by problems for a second day

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson talks about the problems that happened with the online vaccine registration this morning, onWednesday, Jan. 13, 2021.

The problems Utahns had Wednesday signing up to be vaccinated against COVID-19 are “actually great news,” Gov. Spencer Cox said Thursday. “What it means is there is so much demand, especially among our seniors, to get this vaccine that it did overwhelm some of [the] systems.”

But after Salt Lake County had a second round of glitches — sending false cancellation notices to some residents with appointments — seniors were angry at what they saw as a lack of preparation.

“It’s like they didn’t even test the thing,’ said Dennis Hicks, 70, of South Jordan.

“Here’s what pisses me off,” said retired nurse Julia Rossi, 70, from Salt Lake City. “They have had months to develop this program. They have a community filled with talented software engineers. They could have accessed hundreds of volunteers to test the system and provide feedback.”

One of Cox’s first moves as Utah’s new governor was moving county and regional health departments toward the center of vaccine distribution, touting them as the experts at mass vaccination.

But some did not have any information on their websites about vaccination appointments as of Wednesday; Weber County’s website and email system was up and down all day as hardware was being replaced, said a Weber-Morgan Health Department spokeswoman.

Cox said state government is offering help at multiple levels. The state’s Department of Technology Services has reached out to help local health departments. National Guard units are being mobilized to provide nurses to assist understaffed health departments. And the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, along with the legislature’s fiscal analyst, are working to free up additional funding.

“I told people last week that this is going to be bumpy,” Cox said, “that we need people to be patient.”

Cox set the age for vaccine eligibility at age 70 starting on Jan. 18, which set off the rush for appointments. Due to demand, he said Thursday, he will not yet lower that age limit to age 65, as federal health officials have advised.

Salt Lake County, he noted, has scheduled more than 30,000 vaccination slots, “which is all the vaccine that has so far been assigned to them through the end of February.”

And Cox noted that the state of Utah, in one week, has essentially doubled the amount of COVID-19 vaccine it has distributed to health care workers, residents and staff of long-term care facilities, teachers and other eligible groups. The Salt Lake City and Canyons school districts began their vaccinations Thursday; Canyons said it had invited 1,280 employees to get their first dose of the two-dose Moderna vaccine.

Utah has now given 133,202 doses to Utahns, compared to 68,030 last week, Cox said.

Frustration in Salt Lake County

After many older Salt Lake County residents had struggled to register for COVID-19 vaccinations on Wednesday, some received emails that evening telling them their appointments had been canceled. But that was a mistake.

The county health department posted on social media that it “accidentally sent a cancellation notice to people scheduled for several vaccination events in late February. This notice was an error.”

No scheduled appointments were canceled. And, the announcement continued, those who “received the erroneous notice will receive a correction, if they have not already.”

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson had apologized Wednesday morning for problems with the county’s online vaccine registration. On Wednesday night, it was the Salt Lake County Health Department’s turn to “apologize profusely.”

“The challenging morning today was caused by a technology problem with our scheduling vendor, but this evening’s mistake was human error,” the department posted.

The department is urging residents to check their spam and junk folders for confirmation emails. Anyone who believes they registered but did not receive confirmation should email their name, date of birth and phone number to ImmsSupport@slco.org, and the health department will be in touch “in the next few days,” according to a spokesman.

Rossi said she was concerned that the cancellation emails were “a scam. That the information that we put in wasn’t secure.”

And a number of Salt Lake County residents still are wondering if they have appointments or not. Dennis Rippy of Taylorsville said he ran into the problem that plagued many people on the county website on Wednesday morning — “You filled out the whole darn thing, but there was no date. I did that five or six, maybe seven times.”

Eventually, he was able to select a date and complete his form. “At the bottom, I clicked ‘register.’ And it went away. It didn’t say ‘confirmed.’ It didn’t say ‘successful.’ I still don’t know if I got in or not.

“I’m not that old — 77 years old. But, believe me, I’m frustrated.”

Clara Michael, 73, of Salt Lake City waded through the difficulties with the health department website for several hours, and was able to book an appointment shortly before noon. About 3:30 p.m., she received a confirmation email.

“And then at 9:40 p.m., I got the notice of cancellation,” Michael said. “I was pretty upset at that moment. … I thought there was something really screwy about this. It seems like this was not well managed.”

She received the apology email about 12 hours later, on Thursday morning. Her husband, John, never got a confirmation of his registration on Wednesday — but he received one of the mistaken cancellation emails on Thursday morning, followed by an email apologizing for the previous email and confirming his appointment.

“That’s the first time we knew for sure he was registered,” Michael said.

Hicks said once he was finally able to register for an appointment, a message “came up and said, ‘You’ll get a text message or an email within 60 minutes.’” As of Thursday — 24 hours later — he has not received a confirmation.

“And neighbors of mine had the same thing happen to them,” Hicks said. “We want to get these vaccines. Our grandkids won’t even let us see the great-grandkids.”

Rippy has not received either a text or an email. He said he called the Salt Lake County Health Department, the mayor’s office, “every number that I can find, and they say, ‘Leave a message.’ No one’s called me back yet.”

“And we called some of our friends — they’re all saying the same thing. They didn’t get a notice. They don’t know if it went through, either.”

‘Don’t wait, don’t ask’

F. Burton Howard, 87, of Salt Lake City, blames Cox for delegating distribution of the vaccines to the counties.

“It seems to me that Spencer Cox is rolling out vaccine in Utah exactly like Trump rolled it on in the nation,” Howard said. “Trump delegated it to the states because he didn’t want the political fallout. And Cox has done exactly the same thing with the counties.”

Howard said he “waited and waited and waited” for confirmation of his appointment, “and finally, an hour or so later,” he received an onscreen message telling him his appointment had not been confirmed. “And then I went back to the site and it said, ‘We’re out of vaccine. We’re not scheduling appointments until we have more.’”

Howard and others also questioned why vaccinations will be given only at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy. “If they want to vaccinate people, they need to eliminate that choke point and open up pharmacies and Intermountain Healthcare or whoever,” Howard said.

Intermountain Healthcare has told local health departments that the company is “here and willing to help, as needed,” said Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician, in the hospital system’s weekly Facebook Live community briefing.

“We should be vaccinating as fast and as efficiently as possible,” Stenehjem said.

This week, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson visited regional health district offices in Blanding, Vernal, Logan, Cedar City and Richfield, she said at Cox’s news conference. The goal of her visits was “to make sure they understand that the state is fully behind them, and that we are here to remove or help with any barriers that might be getting in their way to actually get these shots in arms as quickly as possible,” she said.

She also stressed that the health departments need to act quickly. “The faster they can get doses in arms,” she said, the more vaccine the health departments can order.

Local health districts, Cox said, “are not used to have unlimited resources. Their instinct is to do what they’ve always done, which is to figure it out, to use duct tape, to piece it together to make it work. … What we said is, ‘Don’t wait, don’t ask. Do it and send us the bill and we will pay for that.’”

For example, Henderson said, in one health district, nurses at the end of their shifts were gathering up the vaccine information the district has to send to the Utah Department of Health the next morning.

Henderson said the state can help provide data-entry employees, to free the nurses up to administer shots and provide patient care.

After its website problems Wednesday, the Weber-Morgan Health Department planned Thursday to replace a “register to be notified” link with a live registration link, allowing residents to make appointments for the week of Jan. 18.

The department expects to have about 2,000 doses, said spokeswoman Lori Buttars. And by Thursday afternoon, all appointments for the week of Jan. 18 were filled, according to the department’s website. People were advised that they “may check back if there are any cancellations.”

Also by Thursday afternoon, health departments in Salt Lake County, Utah County and the Southeast Utah Health District (which covers Carbon, Emery and Grand counties) had filled all of their appointments for next week. Utah County Health Department said it filled its slots in 5 minutes.

Tribune reporter Erin Alberty contributed to this report.