Vaccine scheduling process described as ‘frustrating experience’

NBC4 Investigates

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — The State of Ohio is promising a one-stop-shop to schedule COVID-19 vaccines, but after weeks of development, the online scheduling portal is unavailable to the public with no clear timeframe to go live.

In the meantime, scheduling a vaccine appointment is a frustrating experience for many who qualify, and some vaccine providers are investing heavily into their own portals.

“I went to several sites: Franklin County, Columbus, a couple of pharmacies – Kroger, Giant Eagle — and I just went on every day and just kept on trying,” said Larry Thomas, describing his scheduling process after ultimately receiving his vaccine from Columbus Public Health.

“I was heads-down, doing nothing but trying to secure an appointment somewhere,” said Wendy Ban, who eventually scheduled with CPH. “And I couldn’t even get a chance to register for a vaccine anywhere.”

Gov. Mike DeWine said Tuesday that the state has been working on a solution to difficulties that arise from each vaccine provider managing its own scheduling system.

“We know that that is what people want,” DeWine said. “One place where they can go to book their appointments, instead of calling around and visiting a number of websites.”

After weeks of development, DeWine said the Ohio Department of Health created a centralized online scheduling portal. While the site is built, DeWine said it would not become available to the public until enough vaccine providers are participating.

“During the next two to three weeks, we will continue to work directly with these providers, pharmacies, health departments, etc.,” DeWine said.

The governor acknowledged the potential challenges that lie ahead, as some providers have invested time and money into their own scheduling systems.

Kroger launched a new scheduling portal Wednesday. Amy McCormick, a company spokesperson, said the new website is more streamlined, allowing users to check their eligibility, gauge the availability of doses and schedule their first and second vaccine appointments in one visit.

McCormick said the portal also increased its capacity to handle 250,000 requests per day.

Kroger’s previous scheduling portal crashed in early February after thousands of school employees attempted to log on at the same time.

“It is an ever evolving time, as we all know,” McCormick said. “The rollout of the new vaccine scheduling platform really reflects the company’s commitment to the health and safety of our associates, our customers and the communities.”

McCormick was unsure whether Kroger would participate in Ohio’s centralized portal, as were representatives for several other vaccine providers in the Columbus area when NBC4 Investigates asked.

Only Heart of Ohio Family Health and Mt. Carmel Health System confirmed they would schedule vaccinations through the state portal. A spokesperson for Columbus Public Health said it would not participate because its system is incompatible with the state’s.

As more vaccine doses arrive in Ohio, new providers will be required to join the state portal, DeWine said. He also suggested a deadline for existing providers to opt in, but gave no specifics.

DeWine said a scheduling portal run by the federal government was offered to states earlier on in the vaccination process, but Ohio officials declined to use that program.

“ODH thoroughly researched several centralized scheduling solutions, including one offered by the federal government,” said Alicia Shoults, a spokesperson for ODH. “Following a thorough vetting process, the state chose a solution that is compatible with provider systems and that can be optimized on mobile devices.”

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