Links on social media allowed New York COVID vaccine seekers to cut the line – Democrat & Chronicle

Jon Campbell   | New York State Team

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ALBANY – About 830 people booked COVID-19 vaccine appointments Sunday through links that bypassed New York’s eligibility screener, allowing them to snag coveted slots at state-run vaccination sites while others were forced to wait up to an hour in a virtual queue — if they could get through at all.

The state Department of Health on Sunday made thousands of new vaccination appointments available at 13 state-run locations after expanding eligibility to an estimated 3 million additional New Yorkers with underlying health conditions, including cancer, high blood pressure and obesity. 

All appointments were supposed to be made online through the state’s Am I Eligible online screening tool, or by phone through the state’s phone hotline, 1-833-NYS-4-VAX.

The crush of newly eligible vaccine seekers flooded the online and phone systems at times Sunday, booking more than 10,000 appointments per hour. This led some to be directed to try again later and others to experience extended hold times, including waits of up to 60 minutes in a new “virtual queue” function the state rolled out.

But all the while, direct links to the state’s booking websites for individual vaccination sites ricocheted around Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Discord and other social media, allowing New Yorkers to schedule an appointment immediately, bypassing the eligibility screener and wait times – while others remained on hold, awaited a call back or were turned away.

Direct links to COVID vaccine sites disabled

The USA TODAY Network New York asked the Department of Health about the direct links around 2 p.m. Sunday. Within an hour, the state redirected the links to its Am I Eligible tool, shutting down the direct access to individual sites’ scheduling systems. 

All told, New York residents on Sunday booked 250,924 appointments at state-run vaccination sites, more than any single day since the beginning of the vaccine rollout. Of those, about one third of one percent — roughly 830 appointments — were booked through the now-disabled direct links, according to the Health Department.

“On Sunday, some individuals incorrectly shared links that bypassed the ‘Am I Eligible’ screening tool,” spokesperson Jill Montag said in a statement. “Those links were immediately disabled and changed so they would automatically redirect to the correct ‘Am I Eligible’ page.”

Montag stressed that anyone who booked a vaccine appointment through the direct links was still required to electronically sign an attestation confirming they are eligible to receive the vaccine. They will also be required to provide proof of eligibility at the time of their vaccination appointment.

The direct appointment links applied specifically to state-run facilities, including the mass-vaccination sites at the Dome Arena near Rochester, the Javits Center and Aqueduct Race Track in New York City, a Binghamton University property in Johnson City and SUNY Polytechnic Institute near Utica, among others.

Users shared URLs on social media

There’s little mystery as to how the direct links got out.

The URL for the individual state-run vaccine sites was easily accessible to anyone who went through the eligibility screener and got through the virtual queue. Users then copied the link and shared it on social media, allowing others to bypass the wait.

Until Sunday afternoon, the state did not redirect those links to the Am I Eligible screener, allowing users — who had no reason to believe the links weren’t being used as intended — to directly access a site’s booking system without being screened.

A search of social media showed the links had been shared in recent weeks. But the issue was far more pronounced on Sunday, when the flood of newly eligible people sought appointments and were hit with extended wait times.

Up to 8,000 people per vaccination site were holding in the virtual waiting rooms at once on Sunday, while others were directed to try back later. 

It’s the second time since the launch of the state’s vaccination sites in January that people have been able to bypass the official appointment process.

On Jan. 14, New York voided 22,000 “unauthorized” appointments after people booked them at a half-dozen state-run sites that had not yet begun accepting appointments. Of those, about 20,000 were for the soon-to-launch site at SUNY Stony Brook on Long Island.

Much like Sunday, the appointments in that case were made through direct links that were floating around on social media and group chats. The key difference, however, is the state had not yet begun booking appointments at the sites in January when the links leaked out.

The state inspector general is investigating how the links got out in January.

Unlike in January, the Department of Health does not appear to be inclined to cancel the bookings made through the direct links.

State touts new features

All told, state officials say the improvements made to the state’s vaccination booking system largely worked as intended Sunday. 

Along with the “virtual queue” feature online, the state unveiled a callback feature on its phone hotline, allowing users to request a phone call when it was their turn to book an appointment rather than wait on hold.

People plugged their information into the Am I Eligible screener more than 1.6 million times Sunday alone, according to the state. Appointments at nine of the 13 state-run sites are booked through April 16, with the Dome Arena booked through April 4.

“250,000 appointments in a single day is a milestone, and we can do more — we just need more vaccine supply,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement Tuesday.

More: ‘There are going to be problems’ as NY COVID vaccine push adds underlying conditions

More: How much did Cuomo’s COVID mountain cost? The receipt tells the story

Jon Campbell is a New York state government reporter for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JCAMPBELL1@Gannett.com or on Twitter at @JonCampbellGAN.

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Links on social media allowed New York COVID vaccine seekers to cut the line – Democrat & Chronicle

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