Massachusetts Vaxfinder website could cost state up to $250,000, octopus error message included

The state’s Vaxfinder website — whose failure last month prompted that ubiquitous octopus graphic — is powered by a tool that could cost up to $250,000.

“If it actually helps speed shots into arms, that’s a price I’ll take,” state Sen. Eric Lesser, D-Longmeadow, said. “But that’s an awful lot of money to pay for a picture of an octopus.”

After technical glitches plagued vaccine signups for those ages 75-plus on Jan. 27 and drew sharp criticism, the state inked an emergency contract with Project Beacon on Feb. 1 for a maximum of $250,000 for an online “scraper platform” that would find and amalgamate open appointments scattered across various providers’ websites.

The tool was first used internally at the state’s call center for vaccine appointments, which launched on Feb. 5 to help connect seniors to shots. The state pays $10,000 a month for its use by the call center, according to contracts provided to the Herald.

On Feb. 11, the contract was amended to allow the tool to be used publicly, for the additional cost of $15,000 per month. On Feb. 12, it was rolled out as the vaxfinder.mass.gov website.

The Vaxfinder website crashed just days later, when it was overwhelmed by newly eligible shot-seekers on Feb. 18. Its failure prompted that now-infamous octopus graphic and contributed to several website woes that day that left a “pissed off” Gov. Charlie Baker telling GBH “my hair’s on fire.”

The state said it’s since worked with tech teams to improve the site’s functionality. Project Beacon — the organization launched by F-Prime Capital, GV and the Broad Institute that’s also behind several of the state’s regional COVID-19 testing sites — did not return requests for comment.

The state also pays a one-time fee of $2,500 per each provider Project Beacon adds to the Vaxfinder website.

The first four providers — CVS, Color, Curative, which runs mass vaccination sites in Springfield, Danvers and Dartmouth, and PrepMod, which is behind the also-glitchy maimmunizations.org — were included for free.

But additional providers cost money. That list includes Walgreens, Topco, Stop & Shop, Hannaford, Baystate Health, Lawrence General Hospital, UMass Memorial, Nantucket Cottage Hospital and Needham Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates – Atrius Health — though many of those appeared not yet fully integrated onto the website as of Friday.

Olivia Adams — the athenahealth software developer behind the vaccine-finder website macovidvaccines.com, which was up and running before the Baker administration rolled out the Vaxfinder — said the price structure makes sense given complications that can arise in integrating third-party interfaces.

But she said “the numbers do seem a little high for the amount of work needed to stand up a site like this.”

State Rep. William Driscoll, D-Milton, the House chair of the joint COVID-19 oversight committee, said, “At the end of the day, a booking platform that is guaranteed to work and provides a less challenging approach for securing a vaccination appointment would be worth every penny.”

Read More