State vaccine registry draws more than 30,000 Mainers in first days

Kevin Miller, Portland Press Herald, Maine
·7 min read

Mar. 25—More than 30,000 Maine residents signed up for vaccination against COVID-19 since the "soft launch" of a new, state-run registration system that will eventually help with scheduling appointments.

More than three months after COVID-19 vaccinations began in Maine, the state has begun offering a website where visitors can preregister and then be connected with available clinics in their area. The scheduling function on the website, vaccinateme.maine.gov, is not yet live but 33,070 people had preregistered between Tuesday and Thursday morning, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The platform was developed by a small, San Francisco-based tech firm, Skedulo Holdings, through a contract valued at $732,948. Skedulo helped design California's massive vaccination registration and scheduling system, and provided the test-scheduling technology used by the NFL, the NBA and the New York City Department of Education.

On Thursday, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah stressed that the state-run system will not replace the registration and scheduling systems operated by many of the state's largest vaccine providers, including Northern Light Health and MaineHealth. Those providers will continue to operate their own, separate systems.

"But there are other (vaccination) sites — small, medium and large — that currently exist in Maine or may be coming online soon that may opt to use this scheduling platform," Shah said during his twice-weekly briefing. "Again, this resource for preregistration and, ultimately, registration is a resource through which you can schedule, it is not the only resource through which you can schedule. It will work with some sites, but not all sites."

Shah said the Maine CDC is currently working with interested vaccination providers to transition into the state-run system and hopes to offer a scheduling platform soon.

Mainers 50 and over are currently eligible for vaccination, and the eligibility window is tentatively scheduled to expand to residents 16 and over on April 19. While the state's online registration platform does not currently offer scheduling, the website directs users eligible for vaccination to a link containing lists of health care providers offering appointments.

In addition to MaineHealth and Northern Light Health, which operate multiple mass-vaccination clinics, other health care networks or hospitals opting to stick with their own scheduling platforms include Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston, Martin's Point Health Care and InterMed.

But several small- to medium-sized operations welcomed the launch of the state-run system.

MaineGeneral Health in Augusta, for instance, plans to completely switch over to the state's platform once the scheduling function is added. MaineGeneral has consistently received several thousand initial doses of vaccine per week from the Maine CDC.

"We feel the state's scheduling system will be a win-win," MaineGeneral spokeswoman Joy McKenna said. "The state system will benefit community members because it will give them a one-stop-shop way to see what's available in a given geographical area. The system will also enable us to free up resources."

Dr. Amelia Arnold, pharmacy operations manager at Augusta-based Community Pharmacies, said she "would absolutely love to take advantage of that." But before it can happen, Arnold said, the state has to begin shipping more vaccine doses to her network of nine independent pharmacies stretching from Saco to the Bangor area.

Community Pharmacies' locations were tapped by the state to assist in inoculating residents and staff at nursing homes and other long-term care settings as part of Maine's initial vaccination strategy. But Arnold said she has been asking for weeks for a share of Maine's doses so they could expand vaccinations of eligible residents in their local communities.

Arnold said she immediately called the Maine CDC on Tuesday in hopes of enrolling Community Pharmacies in the preregistration system because scheduling has been a challenge. But Arnold was told that portion of the site was not ready yet. Community Pharmacies is not slated to receive any vaccine doses next week, although Shah indicated on Thursday that the Maine CDC was working with independent pharmacies on plans to expand vaccinations as supplies increase.

"It would be a huge benefit," Arnold said. "Independent pharmacies are resourceful and will find a way ... to make it work."

Representatives for Skedulo did not respond to a request for an interview this week. The company focuses on services for mobile or "deskless" workforces, including scheduling, dispatching, virtual meetings and messaging.

Although small compared to many Silicon Valley-area tech firms, with less than 200 employees, Skedulo has been a player in several major testing and vaccination scheduling platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic. Working with the firm BioReference Laboratories, Skedulo has provided the testing appointment scheduling platform to this country's professional football, basketball and soccer leagues as well as to New York City schools.

In January, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that Skedulo would work with two Fortune 500 companies, Salesforce and Accenture, to launch a vaccination registration, scheduling and reporting system for the state of roughly 40 million residents.

California's My Turn website had hiccups in the initial weeks, including complaints that the technology allowed younger, wealthier and tech-savvy users to snag appointments that were supposed to be reserved for high-risk individuals or people living in underserved communities. But the Newsom administration pledged to address the issues.

Skedulo is also working with Accenture and Salesforce to launch a vaccination scheduling portal for the province of Ontario, according to Canadian news reports.

In a blog post after the California announcement, Skedulo CEO Matt Fairhurst said: "I am so proud of the Skedulo team, and with similar conversations currently taking place with additional states, provinces and countries around the scheduling of testing and vaccination appointments, I know that our work is not yet finished, and we will continue to be a partner, advocate and champion for these public and private health organizations."

Maine's new website is not the "one-stop shop," centralized registration and scheduling platform originally envisioned months ago. After the Maine CDC joined the vast majority of other states in opting not to participate in a federal system that was viewed as inadequate, hospitals and health care networks were forced to quickly stand up their own registration and scheduling systems.

The result has been a hodgepodge of systems that do not communicate with each other, allowing individuals to register or even schedule appointments with multiple providers. While MaineHealth and some other organizations offer preregistration, others only open their appointment windows to eligible individuals when they have vaccines available.

"After seeing the problems that other states encountered when trying to stand up a universal registration system and noting that some of Maine's major health systems had implemented scheduling systems that seemed to work for them, Maine determined that the best way to serve residents seeking to be vaccinated would be to add a system to complement those already being used," Maine CDC spokesman Robert Long said in an email. "Like so much of the pandemic response, the work to create a vaccination registration and scheduling system as more and more Maine people become eligible has involved identifying emerging needs and adapting to meet those needs."

Even though some of the larger vaccination providers will continue to utilize their own, separate platforms, the vision is that they will be connected to the state-run system. For instance, an individual in the Bangor area who registers on the state's site could be routed to Northern Light Health's website when it comes time to schedule an appointment at, say, the mass-vaccination site at Cross Insurance Center.

Dr. James Jarvis, the COVID-19 senior executive physician at Northern Light Health, said the network felt they could more easily control their own scheduling, staffing and appointment flow by maintaining their existing system.

"If there is a way to integrate them, we will certainly work with the state on that," Jarvis said. "But for the foreseeable future, we will continue to use our website and we feel that the state will link to our website."