Leaders of the state’s largest hospital system have apologized to their 80,000 employees for the rocky rollout of their COVID-19 vaccination program, including last week’s crash of an online system set up to schedule vaccine appointments.
But the initial snafus won’t delay Mass General Brigham’s plans to vaccinate all its highest-priority workers by Jan. 8, according to a top emergency preparedness doctor.
Those include front-line health care and other support workers in emergency departments, intensive care units, urgent care, and respiratory illness centers at Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and smaller community hospitals across the state.
“We’re sorry they felt frustrated,” Dr. Paul Biddinger, medical director for emergency preparedness at Mass General Brigham, said of employees who were initially unable to use a software application to schedule vaccinations. “And, given everything our employees had contributed and everything they’ve been through, we want them to know they are valued.”
The outage, which began late on December 16 and continued until the next morning, resulted from an overload of the online signup system, the hospital said, “driven by a large volume of employees trying to self-schedule an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine.”
The outage resurrected painful memories for a number of health care workers, for whom the severe shortages of personal protective gear earlier in the pandemic are still raw.
Biddinger, noting hospital leaders have communicated with their employees about the rollout challenges, said Mass General Brigham technicians are working to overhaul the app so that employees will be able to enroll sequentially to schedule vaccine appointments and the software will recognize which wave they fit into. He said the hospital system hopes to vaccinate more than half its employees — all who are patient-facing — by the end of February.
The clamor for the new vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna is also causing concerns at other Massachusetts hospitals, said Biddinger, who heads the Baker Administration’s advisory committee that set up a framework for vaccinating high-risk workers and residents as more supplies of the new vaccines come available.
While other hospitals are scheduling vaccinations manually, or empowering supervisors to set up schedules, “I haven’t talked to a hospital yet where staff hasn’t had questions about the priorities,” Biddinger said. “That’s to be expected.”
Biddinger said Mass General Brigham received just under 9,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine last week and expects to receive more than 30,000 doses of the vaccine from Cambridge-based Moderna starting this week. Moderna’s vaccine was approved by Food and Drug Administration for emergency use last Friday, a week after the FDA gave emergency use authorization to the Pfizer vaccine.
One positive note in the early rollout, Biddinger said, was that the Mass General Brigham medical staff has been able to squeeze six or seven doses out of five-dose vials that were purposefully overfilled by Pfizer, a practice that was endorsed by the FDA.
“That has given us a bonus of 20 percent vaccine supply,” he said.
Biddinger said many of challenges hospitals are confronting in the early stage of the rollout will improve as supplies expand in the coming weeks.
“In general, our medical system is not used to scarcity on this scale,” he said, “certainly not in this setting of strain and the emotional fatigue this workforce is facing. You can’t overstate the strain on the health care workforce at this moment. And you also can’t overstate their commitment to patients.”