Word began to spread Friday on social media and in personal messages and conversations: The state of Utah was supposedly having trouble filling appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations and vaccines may be going to waste.
So thousands of Utahns went to the new system at vaccinate.utah.gov. Due to a mistake by the state Department of Technology Services, the state acknowledges, the website allowed them to schedule appointments — despite not having the specific health conditions or being old enough to meet current criteria.
So while the flawed website led these Utahns to believe the empty slots and wider access existed, they didn’t — and now 7,200 people have either had their appointments canceled or canceled on their own, and some are facing attacks on social media.
“I’m not a vaccine chaser,” said Kristin Fredrickson, 35, of Salt Lake City. “People are vilifying me for signing up for a vaccine. That’s not at all what happened.”
She and several other people told the same story — they heard that vaccines were going unused and appointments were going unfilled, so they went to the website to register.
“That’s what prompted us to do it,” said Dustin Wolters, 38, of Riverton. “I thought — if they’re not utilizing it and the vaccines are going to waste, I don’t want to miss out on that.”
He heard it from a friend who heard it from an uncle, who’s a doctor. Julie Bartel heard it from a friend who’s a professor at the University of Utah. One social media post that circulated cited an emergency room physician at the U.; a spokeswoman said Monday the U. is looking into that tweet.
“Appointments were made in 100% good faith,” Bartel said. “No one was attempting to jump the line, but rather to make sure shots didn’t go unused, which didn’t seem unrealistic given news reports about the percentage of Utahns who were likely to opt out of vaccination altogether.”
Gov. Spencer Cox had said last week that “starting into April and May, our biggest concern is going to be vaccine hesitancy, like, how do we convince people to get this vaccine because we have so much of it.”
Wolters tried to call the county health department to verify the information he’d heard, he said, but there were more than 50 callers on hold in front of him. “And without being able to do that, we didn’t want to miss our opportunity.”
And he also thought the story of appointments going unscheduled seemed plausible.
“I know people personally who have gotten a vaccine because of those circumstances where people weren’t showing up to appointments,” he said. “So it seemed like there was a basis of truth to the story that we’d heard.”
And when he answered all the questions truthfully and was still allowed to register for an appointment, he said, that seemed like confirmation that what he’d been told about unused vaccine doses was true.
“I thought this was legit,” agreed Fredrickson. “You assume a government website is going to be programmed correctly. It shouldn’t let you register if it’s not OK.”
And they’re particularly frustrated that they’re being branded cheaters or line jumpers. There is a “strong insinuation that all of us who answered truthfully and signed up in good faith had intentionally done something wrong,” Bartel said.
“I was really upset,” Fredrickson said. “Because we have followed every single guideline. We have stayed at home. We haven’t seen family for over a year. We didn’t go to Christmas. I haven’t seen my mother. I haven’t seen my father. We have missed weddings. We have missed birthdays.”
They feel like they’ve been blamed by public opinion, without an adequate apology or response from government officials. Salt Lake County and state tech employees became aware there was a problem on Friday night, spokespeople said Monday.
Salt Lake County’s social media push to clarify that vaccine eligibility had not changed did not begin until after noon Saturday, and it initially did not refer to or explain the website glitch that was allowing unqualified residents to make appointments.
The Utah Department of Health issued a statement after 6 p.m. Saturday explaining there was an error in the site.
“The response from the government/health department has been disheartening,” Bartel said. “Barely an apology for the disruption and inconvenience and the crushing disappointment of having appointments canceled. No real explanation of how or why this happened.
“Listening to my sister-in-law cry tears of relief that her high school senior daughter — forced back to school four days a week beginning this week — had a vaccination appointment was a moment I won’t forget. Knowing that appointment was canceled 24 hours later is not something I’m going to forget either.”
Brenda Wiebe, 35, of Salt Lake City said believing she had an appointment only to have it canceled was “incredibly disappointing. For a brief moment, I could see the end of the tunnel. A place where selfish people not wearing masks in grocery stores and the elevator in my building no longer put my life in danger because I’d be protected.”
Wolters and his wife, Tristen, are both 38 and have no preexisting conditions. They are caring for an elderly family member who has been diagnosed with cancer, “so we thought, ‘If we can get it, we can reduce the risk of exposing him,’” Wolters said.
They’re not angry that they still have to wait their turn, but they are frustrated that they thought they had registered correctly only to have their appointments canceled.
“If there are people who need it more than we do, I understand,” he said. “We don’t want to take it from them.”
That’s another common refrain among those who thought they were making legitimate appointments only to have them canceled. “I don’t want to get vaccinated before it’s rightfully my turn,” said Jason Black, 45, of Salt Lake City. “Let teachers and frontline workers and older folks etc get theirs first, but what a disappointment.”