A flaw by state employees allowed 7,200 unqualified Utahns to sign up for COVID-19 vaccines

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vials of the COVID-19 Vaccine for Utah County residents, in a former Shopko store in Spanish Fork, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021.

The glitch that allowed 7,200 Utahns who did not qualify for COVID-19 vaccine to make appointments over the weekend was caused by a mistake in the website design created by state Department of Technology Services employees, a DTS spokeswoman said Monday.

That flaw gave credence to rumors that began circulating Friday that the state was having trouble filling appointments and expanding access, as the website allowed people to register despite their admissions that they did not have the required health conditions or weren’t old enough to meet current criteria.

“Our logic was — there must be those basic safeguards in place to ensure that people who are not supposed to register can’t,” said Dustin Wolters, 38, of Riverton, who signed up believing vaccine was potentially going to waste. “It’s super frustrating that they missed a very basic step. … It’s a huge blunder.”

[Read more: Utahns sought COVID-19 vaccine in good faith. But their slots were a state mistake, and they feel vilified.]

The system at vaccinate.utah.gov is a new site created by the Department of Technology Services and the company MTX Group, Inc., said Tom Hudachko, director of communications for the Utah Department of Health.

Users are asked whether they meet the current vaccine eligibility requirements, Hudachko said. Over the weekend, Utahns who answered “yes” and “no” were both sent to the scheduling system to make an appointment, he said.

Those who answered “no” were supposed to be sent to a page explaining that they are not eligible and told they should check back later, Hudachko said.

“The design flaw was that people who had checked ‘no’ on the eligibility question were able to schedule appointments,” Stephanie Weteling, public information officer for DTS, said in an email.

The state’s design had been implemented by MTX Group, she said, and the state has updated its design. There is no further investigation underway into the error, she added. Weteling clarified that “the design flaw was made by the State, and not MTX.”

The state hired MTX Group for $343,000 to build the site, according to the contract.

It was intended to help smaller health departments that may have struggled to come up with an online registration system, Hudachko said. Salt Lake County began using it late last week, and San Juan County is the only other county currently using it.

All 7,200 appointments for people who answered that they did not meet current vaccination requirements have been canceled, Hudachko said.

Here is how state and county officials became aware of the glitch and the timeline of their response.

A warning sign on Friday night

Salt Lake County started using the new system at the end of last week, said Gabe Moreno, spokesperson for the county’s health department.

Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson’s office became aware there was a potential problem late on Friday night, according to Chloe Morroni, county communications director, in a statement Monday.

State employees at the Department of Technology Services also noticed late Friday that a large number of people who had checked “no” on the eligibility question were able to schedule appointments, Hudachko said.

In Utah, anyone 65 or older, and anyone 16 and older with certain severe or chronic medical conditions, are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine — as well as teachers, health care workers, first responders and residents and staff of long-term care facilities. The state is using the honor system and asking Utahns who do not have the specific health conditions on the state’s list to not seek appointments.

Wilson “immediately started troubleshooting” on Friday, Morroni said, and by Saturday morning, “it was clear there was indeed a glitch.”

The social and technical response

The mayor began working on the problem with Jill Miller, co-director of Salt Lake County’s mass vaccination branch, and Gary Edwards, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department.

The county’s IT team “was contacted and immediately started addressing the glitch with the state,” Morroni said.

DTS began working with Salt Lake County on what was envisioned initially as a temporary fix, Weteling said, which would only allow “individuals with a registration code from Salt Lake County to access the system.” Users would have to get the code from Salt Lake County’s website, where they would have to verify their age and certify their qualifying health condition, and then use the code on the state appointment site.

Wilson “involved her communications team to help with messaging,” who posted on social media about who qualified for a vaccine, Morroni said.

The county’s social media push to clarify that vaccine eligibility had not changed did not begin until after noon, and it initially did not refer to or explain the website glitch that was allowing unqualified residents to make appointments.

At 1:25 p.m. Saturday, Wilson tweeted, “Today there is confusion about eligibility criteria for vaccines. Salt Lake County has confirmed that the eligibility announced by the Governor on Thursday remains in place. Those over age 65 are eligible, and those 16-64 with qualifying medical conditions are eligible.”

Shortly after 2 p.m., Salt Lake County’s government and health department accounts retweeted Wilson, again reminding residents of eligibility and qualifying conditions.

The Salt Lake County Health Department communications office regularly monitors chatter online to see if there are any rumors floating around that need to be addressed, Moreno said.

After being notified about the glitch from the mayor’s office earlier, Moreno said he saw a tweet posted at 4:15 p.m. Saturday with “false information,” attributed to an emergency room doctor at the University of Utah.

The tweet “was not from any of our official accounts. We are looking into it,” spokesperson Kathy Wilets of University of Utah Health said Monday.

Moreno quoted that incorrect tweet from the Salt Lake County Health Department’s account, saying, “Please refrain from making appointments if you do not have a qualifying medical condition. Those who genuinely thought they were eligible for an appointment without a qualifying medical condition, we ask that you cancel that appointment so those at risk can access appointments.”

By Saturday afternoon, state Technology Services employees had the fix in place that required codes to make appointments.

After 6 p.m., the Utah Department of Health issued a statement that explained there was an error in the site.

And by Saturday night, there was a permanent fix; vaccinate.utah.gov now requires users to certify their eligible condition before they can sign up for an account to book an appointment.

The Salt Lake County system that provides registration codes to book appointments also has been made permanent, Moreno said. “The state was very responsive and the situation was rectified,” Morroni said.

She said the mayor’s office received a couple of calls about the glitch, and the county’s health department also received calls from residents. Some residents told The Salt Lake Tribune that lines were jammed and they could not get through to the department on Saturday.

How to avoid future confusion

If Utahns see rumors about vaccinations or are confused about who is eligible, they should check the Utah Department of Health’s website at https://coronavirus.utah.gov/vaccine for the latest information, Hudachko and Moreno said.

Hudachko said he thinks the “vast majority” of people who made appointments on Saturday were answering the questions honestly and thought they could sign up.

About 1,000 people canceled appointments on their own between Saturday evening and Sunday morning, leaving the Department of Health to send out 6,200 notices to people that their appointments had been canceled, Hudachko said.

The emails sent out included a phone number for people to call if they had their appointment canceled but think they are eligible, he said.

According to Hudachko, there were 44 cancellations in San Juan County, and the rest were in Salt Lake County.