Early Monday morning, Ezra Oliff-Lieberman received the pandemic-era version of a Golden Ticket: a link to sign up for the COVID-19 vaccine.
The link offered scheduling for an appointment at Philadelphia’s forthcoming FEMA vaccination site at the Pa. Convention Center. When it was forwarded to Oliff-Lieberman by a friend, he and his West Philly housemates were excited — and a little confused. There wasn’t any information about who was or wasn’t eligible to use the form; just a list of available times and dates, followed by several pages asking for personal and medical information. Then a confirmation button.
“We were like, oh my God, amazing … and within 30 seconds I was able to make an appointment for Thursday,” Oliff-Lieberman said.
He and his friends weren’t sure why it had been so easy. Maybe the city had just gotten a big shipment of vaccines, they reasoned. Or maybe the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine had suddenly expanded the city’s pool of doses, as well as the classes of people eligible to get them.
In actuality, none of those things had happened. After reading a Billy Penn explainer on the FEMA site, they realized appointments at the clinic were intended to be invitation-only, for highest-priority residents in the city’s Phases 1A and 1B.
Oliff-Lieberman is 24, and he works from home. While he and his housemates wanted the vaccine, they didn’t want to jump ahead of others who needed it more. They canceled their appointments.
But they weren’t the only ones affected. Multiple messages to WHYY reporters, as well as posts on social media, indicated the FEMA site links circulated broadly, and that many signed up without knowing whether or not they were eligible.
The Philadelphia Health Department blamed the error on the recipients of the invitations, which it said were sent to essential workers who serve in public-facing roles.
“Confidential links were sent to those individuals. Regrettably, the confidential links were shared inappropriately with individuals that were not on the approved list,” department spokesperson Matthew Rankin told WHYY.
Rankin also placed blame on anyone who got the link from a friend and then signed up, saying it amounted to “stealing doses” from those at highest risk. “Anyone who has received a private appointment link should consider what their sharing of that link could do, and make sure they are okay with taking vaccine away from those who could die as a result of their action.”
Observers wondered why there wasn’t a way to weed out ineligible people during the sign-up process, or a disclaimer on the sign-up form itself, instead of just in the invitation email.
“I’m not a coder, but I feel like I could make a Google Form that has a disclaimer that would have at least made people like me and my housemates pause,” Oliff-Lieberman said.
According to the Health Department, modifications to the sign-up form require working with a third-party platform called PrepMod, which the city uses to manage vaccine scheduling and registration. It’s the same one that’s used by the state, and officials in other Pa. counties have flagged several problems, including overbooking of clinics, sending incorrect scheduling reminders — and allowing ineligible signups.
Changes that will mitigate the issue are reportedly coming sometime this week. “We are currently working with PrepMod to implement new features for these links, so that they are not shared as widely in the future,” Rankin said.
“Anyone who obtained an appointment and is not on the approved invitation list will be cancelled,” Rankin said. “The number of appointments being removed is in the hundreds and most likely will grow.”
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