How computer glitches and server overloads for the Spokane Arena's mass vaccination site actually resulted in more people getting vaccinated faster

Spokane Arena is one of the state's mass vaccination sites. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Spokane Arena is one of the state's mass vaccination sites.

Other than a mammogram and a visit to the oncologist, it's been nearly a year since Peggy Munson has left the house.

She's a 74-year-old former nurse with a heart condition. While a brutal chemo session to combat breast cancer a few years ago brought her to "death's doorstep," she says COVID-19 has her "more terrified than anything I've ever seen."

On Wednesday of last week, however, it felt like salvation was within her grasp. If she managed to nab a time slot through CHAS Health's mass vaccination center at the Spokane Arena, she knew she'd not only be protected against a deadly disease, but also would be able to see her whole family again.

Munson's daughter warned her "this might get frustrating" and offered to assist her when the Arena vaccination website went live that morning.

The clock struck 9. They rushed to compete for one of the 3,000 open slots over the next week.

Relief washed over Munson as they chose an appointment date. It evaporated when they tried to enter Munson's phone number.

"It all went to hooey on the phone number," Munson says.

Everything froze. For two hours, she says, they kept retrying, eventually getting trapped in a bureaucratic paradox: The website appeared to tell Munson she couldn't schedule an appointment because she hadn't registered as a patient, but when they tried to register again, the website said they couldn't because Munson was already registered.

"We were never able to get through," Munson says.

As mass vaccination sites have opened up across the state, the rate of vaccine administration has gone from a drip to a dribble to a firehose. But with that torrent of new vaccinations has come a stream of logistical problems, from traffic jams to website glitches.

"I don't cry very often, because I'm a pretty tough old bird. For the first time, I was crying to my daughter," Munson says. "We thought we had the appointment. We thought we were doing it. And then poof."

FULL THROTTLE

Matt Meyer, director of entertainment for the Spokane Public Facilities District, was used to handling thousands of people streaming into the Arena for everything from Garth Brooks concerts to March Madness basketball games.

But with large events effectively made illegal over the past year, Meyer's skill set had been repurposed.

"We've been a homeless shelter, a clean air shelter, a voting center, a virus testing site," Stephanie Curran, director of the Spokane Public Facilities District, the organization that runs the Arena. "We knew that down the road, there's eventually going to be a vaccine, and they're going to need a mass area to do it."

In December, Meyer gave a walk-through of the Arena to the staffers with Spokane Regional Health District. In early January, he did the same for the local nonprofit CHAS Health as they sketched out an initial strategy.

They would ramp up slowly, vaccinating 80 people a day at first, and then increasing it to a few hundred in the next week.

After all, Washington state's vaccine rollout had been slow at first, stymied by a focus on front-line health care workers and a lack of certified vaccination sites. But on Jan. 18, with little warning, that changed. Gov. Jay Inslee announced that effective immediately, everyone 65 and over would be eligible for vaccination. Some of the state's most powerful corporations, like Starbucks, Microsoft and Costco, would provide logistical support. And Inslee was commanding the state's National Guard to help launch four mass vaccination sites, including at the Spokane Arena.

"When Inslee made that announcement, it just ramped everything up immediately," Meyer says, "and all of us started focusing on the larger numbers, rather than slowly, slowly progressing."

CHAS and the Spokane Arena aimed to vaccinate 500 the first day. All they had to do was let them sign up. That's where the trouble started.

TECHNICAL FOULS

Across the country, vaccine-scheduling websites have been shuddering from the high demand. So the night before Wednesday's launch last week, multiple reporters pressed Kelley Charvet, chief administrative officer for CHAS Health, about whether CHAS's servers would be able to handle it.

"We did have to transfer for a different server in anticipation of high traffic," Charvet assured them. "So we've tried to put all the safeguards in place to ensure that systems don't go down tomorrow."

Instead, the moment they flipped the on switch the next morning, they were hit with a flood of 60,000 registration attempts simultaneously. The sign-up site, run by a third-party medical scheduling company called Qure4U, buckled under the strain.

Joe Jovanovich, a 69-year-old retired bus driver, regaled the Inlander with a similar experience as Munson's in trying to sign up. For over an hour that Wednesday morning, he sat on his couch with his iPhone, persisting through a gauntlet of crashes, freezes and unresponsive buttons.

"I waited and waited and waited, and refreshed, and nothing happened and I'm back to stage one again," Jovanovich says.

Eventually he managed to get scheduled, but others weren't as lucky. Some tried the phone lines, only to be placed behind hundreds of other callers.

Vaccination was supposed to be for appointment only. Some showed up at the Arena knowing they hadn't scheduled one. But others thought they had an appointment as a result of the glitchy website, but their appointment hadn't gone through.

At first, Charvet says, CHAS's internal system was overloaded, too. The workers couldn't tell who had an appointment and who didn't. A handful of people without appointments got vaccinated while others were turned away angrily.

The technical glitch had another, more consequential side effect.

"Once the server crashed and came back online, there was a time period when they were triple-booking every single time slot," says Meyer.

The Arena had been given enough doses to vaccinate 3,000 people over six days. But thanks to the server strain, around 4,500 appointments had been scheduled in only a few hours.

"We had people showing up for the exact same time for more slots that were allotted," Meyer says. "At that point, we're not going to turn people away."

All the problems came crashing together. So many cars were pouring into the Arena parking lot that the Spokane Police had to step in to direct traffic. The drive-thru COVID testing site in the parking lot was suspended.

Meyer says CHAS brought down extra vaccine administrators and doubled the vaccination area inside the Arena to move people through more quickly. He credits the medical staff for adapting so readily.

"During the debriefing, I looked at them and said, 'Every single one of you did a great job,'" Meyer says. "'You did exactly what you were supposed to do. We just did double the amount of people.'"

Ultimately, the glitches hadn't impeded vaccinations. They had accelerated them. CHAS expected to vaccinate over 500 the first day. Instead, they vaccinated 1,164.

"I waited and waited and waited, and refreshed, and nothing happened and I'm back to stage one again."

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PROGRESS BAR

After Jovanovich pulled into the Arena parking lot for his vaccination on Sunday, his irritation at the problems had been replaced by a sense of wonder "how something could be done so well in this day and age."

"It couldn't have gone any better," Jovanovich says. "It was just like smooth glass, from the time you turn into the parking lot until the time you left."

Still, thanks to overbooking, CHAS had to scramble to find extra vaccine doses to inject everyone who signed up. They dipped into the next week's stock and asked other providers — Charvet won't say who — to loan them a few vaccine doses.

Replenishing those supplies, however, means that while the state is sending 4,000 new vaccine doses to the Arena this week, CHAS was only able to schedule an additional 2,500 vaccinations Monday.

In the meantime, others have been scheduling vaccinations at other locations like Costco, which quietly opened up registration for vaccinations in Spokane County last Friday.

On Monday of this week, Charvet assured reporters that Qure4U had expanded its server capacity to accommodate 120,000 simultaneous scheduling attempts. Additionally, they'd implemented an online queuing system. Instead of letting everyone cram in to the server at once, applicants would wait in an orderly line to get scheduled.

At 5 pm on Monday, a revamped CHAS website once again opened up for the next week of vaccine scheduling. And once again, Munson tried to get on their schedule for a vaccine.

This time, she reports, the process was a lot cleaner. As soon as she logged on, she was told she was No. 2,154 in line. She could see a green progress bar, complete with a little animated silhouette of a man who walked forward as the bar advanced.

"Now there's 181 ahead of me," she told the Inlander, watching the progress over the phone. But then seconds later, the man stopped walking. A new message appeared on the page.

"'The COVID vaccine schedule is full for the Spokane Arena location,'" she read aloud. "I was two minutes away from being able to make an appointment. ... It's still mega-frustrating."

After all, fixing the website doesn't fix the supply problem. Meyer says they've already designed the floor plans to allow up to 5,000 people to be vaccinated in the Arena every single day. But getting there means Spokane County needs to get a lot more vaccine doses every week.

Already, Munson knows that thousands of Spokane residents have been vaccinated, even more quickly than anticipated.

"But I wanted to be one of them," Munson says. "I'm not a selfish person, but I want my shot. It's not a lot to ask after 74 years, really." ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...