Staff  Sgt. Alyssa Shaw administers a COVID-19 test at a drive-thru site in Edwards last July. Division of Information Systems staff have modified its scheduling software to arrange COVID-19 vaccinations in similar fashion.
Staff Sgt. Alyssa Shaw administers a COVID-19 test at a drive-thru site in Edwards last July. Division of Information Systems staff have modified its scheduling software to arrange COVID-19 vaccinations in similar fashion.
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DIS scheduling system champions COVID-19 vaccines

Published on Monday, February 8, 2021

By: Bruce Coleman

An online scheduling application developed by the Division of Information Systems at the University of Mississippi Medical Center is helping tens of thousands of Mississippians book appointments to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Mississippi State Department of Health COVID-19 Vaccine Scheduler at https://covidvaccine.umc.edu/ allows health care workers, individuals 65 or older or adults with certain underlying medical conditions (according to current MSDH eligibility guidelines as of the writing of this article - for the most up-to-date information on who is eligible, visit the MSDH website to to book an appointment for first and second doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech or the Moderna vaccines at any of the vaccination sites throughout the state available with the scheduler tool. The locations are coordinated by MSDH and staffed by the Mississippi National Guard.

The application, initially requested by MSDH, has been so effective that the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Quality recently licensed it for use in the Palmetto State.

Dr. Jonathan Wilson, UMMC chief administrative officer and incident manager for UMMC COVID-19 response, said DIS developed the basic framework of the application during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Mississippi officials discovered a more robust scheduling tool was needed to help manage appointments for the mobile COVID-19 testing sites set up in nearly every county in the state.

Portrait of Jonathan Wilson

“Our team in Emergency Services had identified the gap in the state’s preparedness and reached out to DIS leads to see if they could help,” Wilson said. When the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization for the two COVID-19 vaccines, DIS transitioned the application to a COVID-19 vaccination scheduler.

“We applied many of the lessons learned early on from our large-scale drive-thru testing center we deployed to the Fairgrounds last spring,” Wilson said. “Completing documentation on the front end and making an appointment template are really the secrets to the success of the field testing sites.

“We created the playbook and adapted it as we went, then we were able to replicate it around the state for MSDH and the National Guard. The drive-thru vaccine plan followed this same process: online screening, front-end documentation, appointment scheduling and drive-thru tactics.”  

Mississippians who visit the site can register for any available appointments by answering several COVID-19 vaccine patient screening questions, selecting either a first or second dose, and choosing from a list of available locations in Mississippi, from Southaven to Biloxi, from Vicksburg to Meridian. Once they select a convenient day and time, app users can book a reservation by inputting their contact information.

After completing the registration process, applicants will receive an email with all of the relevant information about their appointment. They can also use the app to cancel their scheduled appointment at any time.

Kevin Yearick, UMMC chief information officer-technology, said the two biggest hurdles DIS encountered with the system were moving it safely from inside the UMMC network to an external Microsoft cloud server and securing MSDH patient information.

Portrait of Kevin Yearick

“Moving it to the cloud provided far greater scale, and we removed UMMC resources from the solution, easing our security burden,” Yearick said.

Wilson said although the application worked well during the initial phases of the vaccine roll out, it encountered a major challenge when the scope of the state’s vaccine plan suddenly expanded.

“At first, it was for health care workers and first responders, followed by citizens 75 years and older,” Wilson explained. “When the governor made the unanticipated announcement for citizens 65 and older, and those with health conditions regardless of age, the system simply couldn’t keep up with the demand.

“As I explained it to MEMA (Mississippi Emergency Management Agency) leadership, this event was like the state getting hit by a Category 5 hurricane and we only knew to start planning once it made landfall - it was too late.”

DIS personnel quickly responded to the challenge and, together with Microsoft Azure representatives, managed to stem the tide of the overwhelming expanded vaccine availability response.

“We just didn’t expect such a massive difference in the number of people who needed to get COVID tested to vary so greatly with the immediate number of people who wanted to receive the COVID-19 vaccine,” Yearick said. “After two days of struggling with an on-premises server capacity that could only expand so far,” UMMC contacted Microsoft, who provided additional resources.

Within 24 hours, Yearick said Microsoft had a solution worked out, all in the cloud with no upfront investment.

“That was incredible,” he said. “The UMMC resources assigned to this project were our top talent. They are trusted to do our most complex work. (Microsoft representatives) John Brown and Sven Aelterman were able to coach them through so many changes and new features in Azure.

“From my vantage point, just listening to them interact with my team was inspiring. Both sides were engaged and trusted one another. It was a beautiful thing.”         

In fact, their quality work attracted the attention of officials outside the state, according to Jason Smith, UMMC emergency services manager, who set up a “meet and greet” with DIS’ web development team.

Portrait of Jason Smith

“The COVID-19 response deputy operations chief for the South Carolina DHEQ called, stating they were interested in learning more about the web app we were using to schedule COVID-19 vaccine with MSDH,” Smith said. “South Carolina was excited about the idea of purchasing a license from us. From that point, our intellectual property and legal teams were brought in to discuss the terms.

“The term was to purchase the application as it currently existed. South Carolina felt they have the IT support to be able to make the changes that were needed to support their plan.”

Smith suggested other groups might also benefit from DIS’ proprietary scheduling application.

“Our hope is that a successful roll out in South Carolina could potentially bring other interested parties,” he said. “Entities who have a need to schedule large groups of people needing a vaccine or testing, as the testing environment was the origin of the vaccine scheduler.”

Wilson said the Medical Center’s immediate plan is to transfer the scheduling application to MSDH. “We are not the best organization to maintain a public health tool long term,” he said. But on the long list of those who have played an instrumental role in helping the state navigate a worldwide pandemic, he said not to forget to include one group in particular.  

“Our DIS teams are real heroes in our efforts to get vaccines distributed to Mississippians.”