By Angus Loten
The world's largest cloud companies are stepping in to help
state and local health officials improve the process of scheduling
Covid-19 vaccinations, as millions of Americans become
Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google have
each rolled out cloud-based platforms and applications in recent
months, developed to tackle challenges in setting up and running
appointment-booking websites and call centers.
The digital tools include repurposed versions of scheduling apps
for Covid-19 tests launched last year, as well as wholly new
capabilities, company officials said.
Many of the applications lean on existing enterprise
information-technology apps, such as business management and
communications software. And some include automated call centers
that leverage natural language processing technology developed for
familiar virtual assistants, like Amazon's Alexa.
Across the country, online public-sector services struggled in
early 2021 to handle heavy web traffic and sudden surges in demand
for vaccine appointments, which crashed websites and jammed phone
lines, as people raced to nab available spots.
Most of the sites and call centers were initially built by state
health or local government tech teams, according to the National
Association of State Chief Information Officers, though online
booking systems operated by Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and other
pharmacy chains have also experienced glitches.
Where many fell short was in supporting the massive scale needed
to manage tens and even hundreds of thousands of bookings, while
integrating diverse software systems and databases that supported
different stages of the process, says Todd Schroeder, director of
public sector digital strategy at Google Cloud.
Vaccinations in the U.S. are running at a pace of roughly 3.1
million a day over the past week.
That is where the cloud comes in, Mr. Schroeder said: "We have a
unique experience in handling website traffic."
In February, Google unveiled a purpose-built vaccine scheduling
management system as part of its collection of Covid-response cloud
services. Among other features, it includes virtual call-center
agents powered by artificial intelligence, which can determine
callers' vaccine eligibility, get them registered and schedule
appointments -- in 28 different languages and dialects, Google
The system also handles online registration and pre-screening,
location searches using Google Maps, and sets appointments, along
with issuing automated reminders and other notifications. It then
gathers data, such as patient identification, for on-site medical
teams aiming to speed up the check-in process.
Because these and other functions operate in Google Cloud, the
volume of data compiled in each step -- and by millions of users --
isn't an issue, Mr. Schroeder said. In New York state alone,
Google's system has so far been used to check the eligibility of
some 37 million people for vaccine appointments.
"We never would have been able to handle this on the legacy
system," Sandra Beattie, a member of New York state's Covid Task
Force and the state's first deputy budget director, said in an
email. "There were times we were handling terabytes of data in
Other state health agencies using all or parts of the systems
include Oregon, North Carolina and Massachusetts, Google said.
In Washington state, a similar omnichannel system of web-based,
mobile and virtual call centers developed by Amazon -- and hosted
in the Amazon Web Services cloud -- was adopted by the state in
March. It has processed more than 50,000 calls to date, said Taha
Kass-Hout, director of the company's health AI division.
He said the platform provides the same capabilities for
websites, which take people through the entire scheduling process,
right up to the vaccination location itself.
Other state customers include West Virginia, Rhode Island,
Maryland and South Carolina, among others, according to a company
Beyond the large cloud providers themselves, tech startups are
leveraging the cloud-based tools offered by tech giants to develop
their own vaccination platforms, offering their services to state
and local health agencies.
Curative, a health-tech startup launched just weeks before the
pandemic struck, initially used Amazon's cloud tools as the
backbone to offer Covid testing services. It has since expanded and
now uses AWS to provide complete end-to-end vaccination services
from the ground up -- not only preregistration and appointment
scheduling, but also the medical staff to administer the shots --
working in partnership with state and local health officials.
That includes overseeing a mass vaccination site at the Dodger
Stadium parking lot in Los Angeles that has provided roughly 10,000
vaccinations every day, said Fred Turner, the company's chief
executive officer. To date, he said, the company has provided more
than one million vaccinations across six states.
"Building new software from scratch is not something your
typical public-health organization is particularly equipped to do,"
Mr. Turner said.
Write to Angus Loten at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 20, 2021 20:19 ET (00:19 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.