RI vaccine appointments booked within an hour as thousands scramble for 1,570 spots

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As Rhode Island expanded its vaccine eligibility and added new appointments Friday evening, many people ran into issues with the state’s online portal.

Beginning at 5 p.m., people ages 60 and older and people with certain medical conditions became eligible to book an appointment at one of the state’s mass vaccination sites.

According to Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the new groups accounted for more than 160,000 Rhode Islanders. But the state only opened 1,570 new appointments, meaning demand easily outstripped supply.

“All went very quickly — within about an hour,” R.I. Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said Saturday. “At points just after 5 p.m., there were 400 to 500 people trying to book every second.”

The state’s website, VaccinateRI.org, quickly became overwhelmed and widespread glitches were reported. Rhode Islanders across the state expressed frustration with the process, as some spent hours trying to input information in the hope of getting one of the limited spots. Within a half hour, the Health Department sent out a series of tweets apologizing for the problems.

Beginning Friday evening, 12 News viewers reported a variety of issues, such as the website showing available appointments that would disappear after a vaccination site was selected. Others reported getting booted from the website while inputting information — forcing them to restart the process.

Wendelken said the system is designed to hold time slots for 15 minutes after being selected, but those appointments weren’t fully booked until a patient’s information was entered.

“We are going to continue working to improve the customer experience, but are happy we were able to get so many appointments made tonight,” Wendelken added.

On Saturday, Wendelken suggested demand would continue to outstrip supply for “a little while longer, until we start getting more vaccine in Rhode Island, especially with eligibility now expanded.”

The state has been receiving about 24,000 first and second doses each week, and while President Biden has pledged that every adult will be able to get at least one dose of the vaccine by the end of May, Rhode Island health officials have not been told when their supply might increase.

Rhode Island announced last week it was able to recapture about 14,000 doses from its long-term care vaccination program, which had been allocated far more vaccines than were needed.

But those doses were immediately allocated to municipal vaccination clinics for educators after Gov. Dan McKee prioritized that group ahead of other occupations in Rhode Island.

The prioritization of educators was a departure from the strategy implemented under the Raimondo administration, which had been strictly based on age and underlying health conditions.

The photos below show additional errors reported by Rhode Islanders Friday night:

The Health Department is slated to post the next round of new appointments on its website Tuesday, although people should again expect to find far fewer slots than the number of people currently eligible and looking to get scheduled.

“We won’t be able to change that in the short-term,” Wendelken said. “However, we are going to make some adjustments to the system to improve the user experience.”

Alexandra Leslie contributed to this report.

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