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Fast-acting officials counter bots stealing vaccination slots

  • Big Y Pharmacy Manager Lee Kimball administers a COVID-19 vaccine at the Big Y Pharmacy site in the former Mattress Firm store in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 2/23/2021 5:05:34 PM

As the vaccine rolled out across Franklin County over the past few weeks, public health officials were met with many challenges, including delayed shipments, the state’s registration system crashing and trying to find enough volunteers to work at clinics.

But they hadn’t planned for the most recent challenge: an internet bot that snatched up the majority of slots at one local clinic with people from the eastern part of the state before Franklin County residents had a chance to sign up.

Officials noticed something wasn’t right when the state opened up registration for a clinic at Mohawk Trail Regional School in Buckland, and within a few minutes all the appointments were filled.

“The bot scooped up all but a few,” Franklin Regional Council of Governments (FRCOG) Emergency Preparedness Program Manager Tracy Rogers said. “We talked to our legislators about what can be done from this point, and even before that we immediately canceled all appointments for that day.”

Rogers said the clinic was rescheduled, but this time as a “private” clinic instead of a public one, which means people have to sign up on a website other than the state’s. FRCOG lists registration links, including those for future rotating clinics in South Deerfield, Bernardston, Buckland and Montague on its website at frcog.org.

“When we made the Mohawk Trail one private, it filled within two hours, but with Franklin County residents and a couple of people from the Berkshires,” she said.

Rogers said making clinics public means people have to sign up on the state website, giving bots — autonomous programs on the internet or another network that can interact with systems or users — the opportunity to monopolize the spots available.

Phoebe Walker, FRCOG’s Director of Community Services, said it’s reasonable to think that 15 to 30 percent of the people receiving vaccinations at a clinic in Franklin County might live outside of the county — that’s happening everywhere. People from Franklin County can sign up to get the vaccine elsewhere as well.

“We didn’t work hard for four months to make sure everyone could get vaccinated in Franklin County if they want to, just to find out no one can get in, so we’ll do what we can to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Walker said.

Rogers said the local clinics will remain private until something else can be done to ensure Franklin County residents are the priority.

“We want this to be equitable,” Rogers said. “It’s very challenging.”

She said towns can’t list a clinic as private and then switch to the state’s public registration — it has to be one or the other. Walker and Rogers both said residents are frustrated, saying they can’t get an appointment for a vaccine five minutes after registration opens for a clinic. But there could be many factors involved, including many people just waiting by their computers until a registration opens and filling those appointments within the first hour or two or even sooner.

There are no waiting lists for any of the clinics being held across the county, but some people show up and wait outside of a clinic in case there are cancellations or other issues that might leave a clinic with extra doses at the end of the day. However, Walker said it is extremely rare that people cancel or don’t show up to receive their vaccines.

Walker said those who get their first dose are able to sign up for the second dose before they leave the clinic in most cases.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “Things will get better.”

Where to get a vaccine

There are several other places to schedule a vaccine appointment, including Greenfield’s John Zon Community Center, as well mass-vaccination facilities, including the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Eastfield Mall in Springfield. Pharmacies like CVS (bit.ly/3pIIC2x) and Big Y Supermarket’s pharmacy in Greenfield (bit.ly/3srBKIV) are also accepting appointments through their websites.

Franklin County doctors’ offices and health care centers are scheduling appointments for their eligible patients as vaccines become available. Doctors will call patients to schedule them; patients are asked not to call their doctors about vaccinations.

In addition to FRCOG’s clinics in South Deerfield and Buckland, there will soon be clinics in Montague and Bernardston. Those clinics will rotate between the towns, and times, dates, locations and availability of appointments and registration links will be posted every Friday evening at maimmunizations.org or on the state’s website at bit.ly/3qNTEVv.

Situation reports, including key updates for the Franklin County vaccination effort, are released each Friday afternoon at frcog.org. The county has agreed to a unified vaccination plan coordinated by FRCOG. The agency also provides a vaccine hotline at 413-774-3167, ext. 153.

Other resources

■For help scheduling an appointment, arranging transportation or if you are a homebound person, call LifePath at 413-829-9285.

■For help scheduling an appointment at a state-run vaccination site, call 211.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-9591 or afritz@recorder.com.

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