The last time the federal government debuted a high-profile, public-facing health care website, it was a disaster.
The official website of the Affordable Care Act, HealthCare.gov, was infamously slow and prone to crashes, becoming one of the most high-profile mistakes of the Obama White House and the go-to example for the government’s struggles with technology and the internet.
President Joe Biden will look to avoid the same mistakes with the coming rollout of a nationwide vaccine availability website announced last week. The website will serve as something of a connective tissue among the many vaccination registration websites from states, pharmacies and other businesses.
And while that means the technical challenges will be limited, a single website meant to serve hundreds of millions in the U.S. is still a challenging proposition.
“We’re being incredibly thoughtful about how the system scales,” said John Brownstein, the chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital, who oversees the Vaccine Finder site in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The website will launch as U.S. vaccine distribution ramps up, with some states saying they will soon dramatically expand who can sign up for shots. But signing up for vaccination slots remains a frustrating and confusing process for many people, with homegrown vaccination websites popping up around the country and others volunteering to help people who have trouble.
The new website, VaccineFinder.gov, is scheduled to be live by May 1 and will immediately become the most visible part of the Biden administration’s effort to give the federal government a greater role in the vaccination rollout. President Donald Trump largely left states to decide their own plans.
“We’re trying to learn as many lessons as we can so that when that launch happens we’re prepared,” Brownstein said.
While it won’t be a comprehensive repository of users’ health information like HealthCare.gov, Vaccine Finder is an ambitious undertaking. The site, which is already live as a beta version, pulls national vaccine supply and appointment scheduling information for every location of every major pharmacy in the country, as well as from seven states so far, each morning.
“We have it for every Walgreens, CVS, Kroger, Walmart, Costco. We have all that data flowing,” Brownstein said.
As the site stands now, it doesn’t allow users to register directly for a vaccine site but instead directs them to places where they can register, like pharmacy websites. Many Americans who are eligible for vaccinations have had trouble booking appointments online, as pharmacy and state websites have been buggy or prone to overloading and crashing or quickly run out of open slots.
Vaccine Finder went live in late February as an incomplete site, but it has nevertheless had millions of hits already. It was born as an iteration of earlier sites that aimed to connect Americans with other vaccinations, like flu shots, which Brownstein said he hopes means it will be resilient when it fully launches.
The federal website will also have competition. Facebook said Monday that it would launch a place for people to get information about where to get vaccines. In February, NBC News launched Plan Your Vaccine, an effort to create a one-stop destination to point people to where they can get vaccinated.
Daniel Schuman, the policy director at the liberal nonprofit Demand Progress, said the lack of a nationwide vaccine availability site before now is an indictment of the Trump administration’s lack of a federal plan to deal with the pandemic, and he cautioned that challenging Vaccine Finder to spin up a nationwide website so quickly may lead to problems.
“If it takes nine months for the vaccines to come, which is really fast, you could have had the website up and tested long before then,” Schuman said in a phone call. “You could have tested en masse before you had your vaccines. You could have bugs. Testing things in real time is when things tend to break,” he said.
“That was the HealthCare.gov website,” Schuman said. “They didn’t do enough quality assurance testing on it, and the thing broke.”