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COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Is Not Going Well At 1 Boston Hospital

NOEL KING, HOST:

Doctors and nurses at some of the top hospitals in the country say that people with the most exposure to COVID patients are not always the people getting the vaccine first. As Gabrielle Emanuel of member station GBH in Boston reports, some people are saying the distribution has been like a free-for-all.

GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: For 16 years, Jennifer DeVincent has been a nurse in the Mass General Brigham hospital system. It's been stressful this year in her neonatal intensive care unit because some mothers have tested positive for COVID, so she was thrilled about the vaccine coming. But last week, the scheduling system crashed - too many users. When it was up again, DeVincent was busy with a patient.

JENNIFER DEVINCENT: I remember I was sitting there in the rocker feeding the baby as I was hearing nurses talk from outside the room in the hallway.

EMANUEL: There was a commotion as they realized that within minutes, all the appointments were gone. Many night shift workers woke up to learn they'd slept through the announcement of the new system and the sign-up windows.

DEVINCENT: It turned into somewhat of a free-for-all. And, you know, those that work the most have had the hardest time getting an appointment because you can't always log on at that exact moment.

EMANUEL: DeVincent, who is still unvaccinated, says her frustration turned to anger when she realized exactly who would be getting the shots. Some were managers, coordinators, people who didn't do hands-on patient care. Mass General Brigham is using an honor code system. Employees are supposed to self-police and not skip ahead.

DEVINCENT: It definitely feels a little bit like a slap in the face.

PAUL BIDDINGER: It absolutely did create a frenzy, which is the opposite of what we wanted to do with this system. And it's something that we're working very hard on addressing right now.

EMANUEL: Paul Biddinger is overseeing the vaccine rollout at Mass General Brigham. He says they didn't manage expectations well given the limited number of vaccines. But he says using the honor code is necessary with a staff of more than 80,000.

BIDDINGER: It's actually relatively complex to figure out who is working where. We have staff who move among our hospitals and work in different roles in different hospitals.

EMANUEL: He's been going through the data and says it was relatively rare for people to jump the line and usually a misunderstanding. He says they're working on making the guidelines a lot clearer and fixing issues in the app.

While vaccine rollout has gone smoothly at many hospitals, the issues at Mass General Brigham are not unique. Similar challenges have arisen at places like NewYork-Presbyterian and Stanford Medicine.

JULIE SWANN: I do think that these are initial stumbles.

EMANUEL: Julie Swann is an expert in supply chains who advised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on distributing the H1N1 vaccine. She's betting things will get a lot smoother quickly since supply is increasing. But she says there are techniques to make sure the right people get vaccinated.

SWANN: One way is to send information out first just to the smallest group that is eligible for the vaccine and get them registered first.

EMANUEL: Swann says the test of whether hospitals can do better will be in the coming weeks, as they receive and distribute many more doses of the vaccines.

For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.