In the latest computer-related roadblock for Arizonans seeking COVID-19 vaccinations, the state confirmed that people who weren't eligible were allowed to book appointments, taking available time slots away from those who were eligible.
Currently, vaccine distribution is in the 1a phase, with mainly health care workers getting the shot. On Monday, January 11, the state will open up appointments in the 1b phase, which includes people aged 75 and older, K-12 educators, and law enforcement officers. Appointments can be made on the state's vaccination site, podvaccine.azdhs.gov.
Following a tip on Tuesday that the site was allowing anyone to book a vaccination regardless of the criteria, Phoenix New Times was allowed to book a time slot even after checking "no" on every criteria box. The fine print on the final-step page said that eligibility would be determined at the site where the vaccine would be given. New Times did not complete the booking but checked in with the Arizona Department of Health Services that day to learn more about the problem.
Steve Elliott, spokesperson for the DHS, confirmed in an email on Thursday that it was an actual problem, but that it had been fixed.
"The website showing appointment availability for individuals not in the current prioritized phase was caused by an error in how some vaccination sites were inputted into the system," Elliott said. "The website issue was quickly identified and corrected (in about a day and a half). The number of people impacted would be very small."
People who showed up for vaccines still had to show identification and confirm they met the given criteria, Elliott said. But how many eligible people were denied slots and delayed from getting the vaccine was not immediately available.
When New Times tried the site following Elliott's response, it would not allow an appointment to be booked when 1a or 1b criteria was not selected.
Elliott has not yet responded to a follow-up email sent asking when the problem was identified, about how many people were affected, and how the agency first learned about the problem. AZFamily.com, in a story about the glitch published on Wednesday, said Elliott had confirmed the problem to the station on Wednesday following an inquiry on Tuesday night and that it had been corrected on Tuesday night. In other words, it sounds like state officials had no idea there was a computer problem until either the media or a member of the public alerted them to it.
The error follows a range of computer problems that "dramatically slowed down Maricopa County's vaccine operations," according to the Maricopa County Public Health Department, and helped Arizona achieve one of the lowest per-capita vaccination rates in the country.
As a December 30 letter obtained by New Times showed, the county's public health director, Marcy Flanagan, told DHS Director Dr. Cara Christ how the system sent some healthcare workers from the Valley to sites more than 150 miles away for vaccination instead of one of five Phoenix-area points of dispensing (PODs). It also failed to send invitations for appointments and rejected appointments for unwarranted reasons, such as the use of Cox email. Only 20 percent of Arizona's December shipment of 314,750 doses of the new vaccine was used by the end of the month, spurring Governor Doug Ducey to issue an executive order on December 30 speeding up the works.
"More and more counties are moving to Phase 1B, with the first priority given to protective service workers, teachers, childcare workers and those 75 and older," Elliott said. "We’re working to rapidly expand access to the COVID-19 vaccine in Arizona and make sure vaccines are reaching people, not sitting in freezers."