A problem with Eastern Health's COVID-19 vaccination appointment booking system has allowed about 2,800 people to schedule appointments ahead of schedule, according to the health authority.
At a media conference Tuesday afternoon, Eastern Health president and CEO David Diamond said people were able to prematurely book appointments due to the scheduling software's design, allowing those who had access to the booking website to share their codes with others.
"The system has allowed people to register somewhat outside of our regular process … book themselves, schedule themselves for vaccine appointments," Diamond said.
Stephen Clark, CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Centre for Health Information, which administers the software used to register for vaccinations, said links to book vaccinations were shared only with people in priority groups, not with the general public, as when the same program was used for flu vaccinations in the fall.
"Layering this system with a priority group preferences based on age, range, occupation, etc., has created some complexities and challenges beyond the capabilities of the technical solution," Clark said. "The issue is not unique to this province, and other provinces who have implemented similar solutions have encountered similar issues."
As a result, Clark said the NLCHI and Eastern Health say they are now working on ways to make sure people booking appointments are part of a priority group, including a photo identification requirement.
People who are sent a URL or access code from Eastern Health are also asked not to share the link, as Diamond said that is likely how people outside priority groups were able to register. He said codes were likely shared between neighbours or family, which allowed those outside priority groups to access the scheduling website.
"We don't believe there's anything nefarious or anybody doing anything underhanded to try and cheat the system," he said. "[But] there's nothing in our system that would automatically prevent that from happening."
Diamond added those who self-scheduled an appointment will still be vaccinated, with some likely receiving their first dose as early as Tuesday.
"We've made a decision in consultation with the government not to change those schedules… These folks in the 70-plus cohort would start to be vaccinated within Eastern Health anyway," he said.
"Rather than spend time on the logistics and potentially lose scheduled time, we're going to continue with the vaccination for anyone that was scheduled within that 2,800 group, and focus on expediting the 4,000 80-plus individuals within Eastern Health who still require a vaccine."
Problem not 100% solved, Clark
Although Clark said the system still remains reliable and secure, he added that the solutions introduced by Eastern Health could still lead to access codes being shared among people.
He said all newly released codes will expire 48 hours after they are issued and appointments will be audited to see if the same code is used more than once. However, the codes are not single-use due to the code the website operates on.
"It is still possible, and that is a limitation of the system that we are well aware of," Clark said. "But those two mitigations combined with the others … really make it much more difficult.
"In order to put in a very robust solution, it would require code change.… This is a situation where you've got to look at the good versus the bad."
Diamond said he wishes the health authority "could have caught this earlier and prevented it."
"The commitment now is to say they can expect in the very near future … a call from Eastern Health to get in and get registered."