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Hundreds Turned Away From St. Louis Vaccination Site For Using Shared Sign-Up Links

 A National Guards member walks down the line of people waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine. Health officials and guards members turned away hundreds of people this past Thursday and Friday March 26, 2021 because of invalid email confirmations.
Kayla Drake
St. Louis Public Radio
A National Guard member walks down the line of people waiting for a COVID-19 vaccination at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park.

Updated at 8:50 a.m. March 27 with updated vaccination totals

The St. Louis Health Department and Missouri National Guard turned away more than 450 people from a COVID-19 vaccination event Thursday and Friday due to invalid email confirmations.

In total, 6,600 people were vaccinated at the two-day event at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park.

Hundreds of people eager to receive a shot at the event signed up for time slots using links forwarded by friends and family and posted to social media, said Dr. Fred Echols, the city’s interim health director.

But the links are individualized and only work for the original recipient. So when people who tried to schedule vaccinations with a forwarded link showed up at the event, officials told them they had no appointment. The appointments they thought they made were never saved in the system.

Many who were turned away feared they may have fallen for a scam aimed at harvesting insurance information, and rumors soon swirled on social media. The Missouri Emergency Management Agency added to the confusion by tweeting that emails from the city’s appointment portal, Jotform, are “NOT authentic.” The agency later clarified not all Jotform confirmation emails are false.

Some who used the city’s form said they frantically called their medical insurance companies to make sure their personal information was not compromised. A spokesperson for UnitedHealthCare said the company has not heard of scams related to vaccine sign-ups in the St. Louis area.

People sharing personal appointment links has been an issue since vaccinations started, Echols said. The city’s vaccine invitation email says in bold, red letters not to forward the message to others.

“We really need people to take the instruction that we provide seriously, because we're doing our very best to protect their information and their health during these events,” he said.

People should be careful to look out for phishing scams when signing up for COVID-19 vaccination forms and filling out personal information, Echols said. The department is not aware of any insurance fraud associated with its sign-ups.

Echols said people who receive a vague appointment notification or suspect a scam should call the health department. The city sends out vaccine invitations from the email address “contactus@ochs.life.” It has the health department’s logo and is addressed to an individual.

Currently the city’s appointment sign-up on Jotform requires people to fill in health insurance information, health history, date of birth and other personal information. Echols said he plans to remove the health insurance fields for future vaccination events.

“We want the community to trust the work that we're doing,” he said. “So we don't want to do anything to jeopardize that.”

Some people with real appointments were also mistakenly turned away, including University City resident Lizzy Martinez.

“You sort of trust the government to handle things,” she said. “And even if it's the local government, even the city government, you trust that they know what they're doing, because they have that authority.”

Martinez was able to schedule an appointment with a local pharmacy after a National Guard member turned her away on Thursday.

City health officials say they plan to make the sign-up process clearer for future events, but Echols did not offer specifics.

A spokesperson for St. Louis County said vaccine appointment links from the county health department expire at regular intervals, but it could still be possible for people to sign up through forwarded emails. The county has added employees at vaccination sites to verify confirmation emails and will turn away anyone who signed up through a forwarded link.

Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake

Kayla is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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