Booking Vaccines Has Tested Everyone’s Tech Know-How, Even Public Health’s

In the last week, more and more cohorts have been opened to vaccine eligibility, and the it’s been accompanied by the usual excitement of people receiving their life-saving shot. The first two phases of pre-registration were accompanied by reports of tech issues as older people, many of whom are not very tech savvy, encountered complications, but don’t feel too bad though because according to Public Health, tech issues are “all over the map.”

“We took a list of anyone who didn’t book online, we assumed that they were probably having tech issues, and then we reached out to them manually through the call centre, and invited them to book,” explained Dr. Kyle Wilson, the director of information systems and chief piracy officer of WDG Public Health. “Sometimes they said ‘Yes, I had issues with this system in terms of the online booking, and it was all over the map in terms of why the booking didn’t occur.”

Since pre-registrations began, the technical struggles of people trying to log on and register for their shot – and the struggles of people trying to help them – have been chronicled on social media. Some issues are a matter of user error, like a typo or a misspelled email address. This could result in difficulty booking a vaccine appointment if the information on one form doesn’t exactly match the information on another.

Another issue is when a couple shares an email address. If one partner signs up to register for a shot, and the other partner uses the same email address when try to register, the system won’t allow it.

Some users have reported that when they registered they didn’t receive a confirmation message, which is an issue with the automated system being overwhelmed when its hit by hundreds of new registrations. As Wilson explained in the recent Board of Health meeting, if you get to the page that says “registration  confirmed” then you’re in the system whether you ended up receiving an email or not.

Other issues though have proved more complicated to solve, even by those charged with helping people navigate the vaccine registration system.

“There was an issue where people were using a tablet, like an iPad, and they would close their tab to go back into their email app to get a code, and they we’re actually losing their place on the booking site in the process,” explained Michelle Campbell, manager of public services at the Guelph Public Library.

Employees of the Guelph Public Library, as well as the Wellington County Library system, have been lending their services to people trying to access the vaccine registration system. “The bottom line is that this is what we do, we help people navigate technology, and I don’t think that’s any different helping people get vaccines,” Campbell said.

“We’ve helped about 1,400 people since the start of the rollout, mostly here at the main library where we get about 30 to 40 calls a day,” Campbell explained noting that they’ve seen a decrease in the number of calls as vaccines have started to roll out to younger age groups.  “Some people are calling us to ask questions that sometimes we can’t really answer because they’re more public health questions, but they know that the library’s here, and we’ll answer the phone.”

“We’re not as inundated with calls like Public Health,” Campbell added.

The word “inundated” may not do what’s happened at Public Health any justice.

“I logged into the system because we were having so many calls, and there were 15,000 concurrent calls trying to come through that second,” Wilson said. “Not a lot of systems can handle that, and when you’re a small organization with 250 employees, you have a typical telephone system that’s appropriate for a small to medium-sized business.”

Public Health has been so inundated with inquiries and questions at certain points during the vaccine roll out that they had to scale up to cloud-based solutions through big tech firms. The added hardware and infrastructure then allowed Public Health to better control their call volume so that incoming calls could be more easily lined up in the queue. In the end, the result was fewer dropped calls and a decrease in other technical issues.

“The pressure on the system was so high that people weren’t getting through, and that means they weren’t getting through about anything and not just COVID concerns,” explained Public Health spokesperson Danny Williamson. “There are people that call in and need information about their kid’s grade 7 or 8 vaccines, or about rabies, or maybe they need their well water tested, and all those things are important, but they have a certain volume.”

“This is not normal business, this is anything but,” Williamson added.

The technical ability to handle the demand for people registering, or to answer the questions of people trying to register, is only part of the problem, and probably the easiest part to solve. As vaccinations become available to more and more people, the information issues that Public Health and its allies will need to solve will become very different.

For instance, Public Health is trying to figure out how to reach people not so eagerly following every development with the vaccine rollout, how to get people organized to receive their second shot, and how to reach the vaccine hesitant.

“Something that we’re looking at is how do we get down to a group level – whether that’s seniors groups, sports clubs or cultural associations – and find out what kind of support those folks need,” Williamson said. “We’re less worried about all this pent up demand for early vaccinations because that’s really just a supply issue.”

Part of the plan to make sure everyone is vaccinated is going to be through the regular ways Public Health manages communications such as advertising, social media posts, and press releases. The other part is going to be through direct appeals to faith groups, local organizations, and community events where dozens or hundreds of people are getting together at the same time in one virtual place.

“We’re really going to get down into the weeds as much as possible and connect in every space we can to make sure that people are being given the right resources, and to make sure people can get over the line and get a shot done,” Williamson said.

“That’s why we want people to use the pre-registration system, so that we can always look four to eight weeks out, see who needs to be booked for a shot, and then we can book them seamlessly and efficiently and really fast,” Wilson added.

But there’s still a matter of accessibility, how are people without access to a computer, or the internet, meant to sign up for their vaccine shot? The library is trying to do their part on that account.

“Wifi is always available, even if you’re just standing outside any of our branches. We don’t turn it off,” Campbell said, adding that staff can also help people standing outside the library with their devices while maintaining physical distancing.

Although staff are on the premises, all library branches are currently closed under the most recent COVID restrictions, which makes their usual bank of computers for public use inaccessible. Having said that, the main library has been allowed one computer for public use in an emergency. “We’re just trying to create some equity for people who don’t have access to a computer, and under the regulations we can provide it,” Campbell explained. “We’re not allowing people to hang out all day, but 30 minutes is accessible and safe.”

Lack of access to community resources is another reason why people need to get a vaccine as soon as they’re eligible, and not wait for the “right time” to add their name to the list.

“We don’t want people to be too altruistic here,” Williamson said. “Get in the pre-registration system, and we’ll sort out when you can come and book a vaccination. But as soon as you’re able to get that registration, it’s a huge step in the right direction for us to get you a vaccination.”

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