ROCHESTER, Minn. — Gov. Tim Walz said it would be like trying to get tickets over the phone for Bruce Springsteen.
It turns out to have been more like trying to get tickets for The Beatles. Possibly even Hamilton.
Within its opening minutes of operation at noon Tuesday, Jan. 19, the Minnesota Department of Health vaccine sign-up call line offered a busy signal. The state had advised seniors to try the webpage first, where there was no window to log in until noon.
For those who logged on at 12:01 p.m., the signup page was already triggering a virtual waiting room, one which lasted for 15 minutes before offering a selection from one of the nine sites, which then leads to a signup form.
But for those who tried even just a few moments later, the waiting room remained frozen in place. Instead of a heartless rainbow wheel for the provision of medicine capable of liberating the state's 1 million seniors from self-quarantine, it offered a beating heart.
Not long thereafter, the signup page had crashed, first giving an error reading, and eventually a red box which stated: "We are experiencing extremely high call volume and traffic to the vaccine registration page. The vendor is working to address these technical issues. Please check back momentarily."
"The state website handled the traffic well, though the vendor site that processes registrations experienced some slowdowns," health officials said in a statement. "The vendor temporarily closed the system to new users to better manage traffic, but the system never stopped processing appointments. We are investigating the web traffic patterns to determine what caused the slowdown, and we will put to work what we learn.."
"Today taught us important lessons – and so will each successive day of this pilot program."
Health officials offered the signup accompanied by avowed protestations that the state simply is not being sent enough vaccines to treat the enormous group of citizens who now qualify for doses under a last-minute policy change initiated in Washington, one opening up access to everyone over 65.
Previously, the state had been proceeding orderly through the final tier of a group known as 1a, a process which followed CDC guidance for prioritization on using limited early doses to inoculate healthcare workers and residents of nursing homes.
The state was expecting to advance to those aged 75 and over and essential workers in February. Without warning, late last week outgoing U.S. Secretary of Health Alex Azar advised all states to begin offering vaccines to everyone aged 65 and over, effectively upending the process and guaranteeing widespread frustration as a far larger group of Americans scrambled for a fixed sum of vaccine.
The goal was to ensure that no doses went unused amid pockets of vaccine hesitancy and the looming threat of a more virulent new strain.
Health officials were wary, however, given that this approach has been taken in Florida, with often disastrous results as reports arise of seniors queuing for hours for limited doses only to be turned away.
Minnesota health officials have stressed that vaccines will not be offered to anyone without an appointment and limited number of appointments are available.
As of 5 p.m., the signup page was back online. MDH said more than 5,000 Minnesotans had scheduled appointments for their first and second vaccine doses through the system, totaling nearly 11,000 appointments booked for the day.
There were 10,000 hits per second on the webpage at the peak, according to the health department, with more than 232,000 calls having been processed through the call center by late afternoon..
"Minnesotans should not contact their healthcare provider (for vaccination appointments) at this time," said state director of infectious disease Kris Ehresmann.
Ehresmann said more available appointments will refresh at noon on Tuesday, Jan. 26.