Covid.gov failure is worse than inexcusable

More than two years into a global pandemic that has claimed millions of lives, the U.S. government has finally launched what it calls a “one-stop-shop” website for resources on services, measures mitigation and treatment options for Covid-19. While the page – Covid.gov – links to the existing tool for ordering rapid test kits, it only aggregates information.

It’s a far cry from the one-stop shop that the Joe Biden administration led us to believe was in sight. But even as an information tool, Covid.gov gets a failing grade.

The instructions for finding and getting free masks, for example, are labyrinthine: Clicking “Learn about masks and where to get them” just takes you to the standard Centers for Disease Control explainer on masks. This page is out of date – at the time of this writing it was last updated in August 2021 and still prominently features an illustration of cloth masks rather than the more heavily protective N95 and KN95 models. (1) And it is very difficult to navigate.

Of the many different links, one indeed promises to help you locate free face masks. But once you get to this locator, you learn that: “This tool displays a list of pharmacies that provide free masks (N95 respirators). It does not show their current inventory. (Emphasis in original.)

I first tried using the link on mobile and only found one distribution location listed in my postcode. Later, I tried searching my computer again and found that more locations were listed, but an invisible (and therefore imperceptible) scrolling interface was needed to see the others. Anyway, trying to contact one of the pharmacies listed led me to a long phone chain, at the end of which there was no information on current availability.(4)

Meanwhile, the administration has made a big deal of its “test to treat” program, under which Covid-19 tests and – if needed – treatments can be obtained in a single visit to a pharmacy or clinic. . But as Dania Palanker of Georgetown University’s Center on Health Insurance Reforms illustrated, the process of finding these locations through the Covid.gov portal is even more complicated, requiring seemingly many steps to go through. similar and enter the same information repeatedly.

Especially now, with government funding for vaccines, tests and treatments under great pressure, it is all the more important to use what we have effectively. And poor site design will reduce the use of the few available resources.

We saw this with the 2013 rollout of Healthcare.gov, in which a flawed design initially prevented tens of thousands of people from enrolling. Likewise, an attempt at a national Covid vaccine scheduling system was so non-functional that most states abandoned it — but not before it left some clinics forced to track appointments on paper forms.

It’s a web design rule of thumb that the more steps visitors have to take on a site, the more likely they are to leave before completing a transaction. I’ve heard it summed up colloquially as “every click kills” – a maxim that takes on much more serious meaning in the context of a pandemic. When users leave the site, they literally increase the danger to themselves and others.

This is all the more frustrating because designing a Covid resource information platform shouldn’t be that difficult. Earlier in the pandemic, teams of volunteers and even individuals built tools to find vaccination appointments within days. The N95 project, a national clearinghouse for personal protective equipment, was launched in early 2020 and operational almost immediately. In the case of Covid.gov, even simply launching a public competition to create the page would have potentially led to a better design.

But instead, as Tinglong Dai of Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University has described, the United States is building platforms like this through complex procurement processes that are slow and expensive. — and that favor established government contractors over more nimble tech companies. And apparently they pay far too little attention to user experience design and product testing, both of which are essential to developing a technology platform.

The government needs partners from the tech world and should directly employ people with product management expertise who can be handy in guiding this type of work. And when building technology platforms, it should emphasize iterative development — revising the design and other specifications after performing user experience testing and gathering feedback.

Now in the third year of Covid-19, we also need more than just information that should have been available a long time ago. As for the distribution of masks, at least the government could have simply sent them directly to people. Such a plan has already been considered and we have set up an infrastructure for mailing tests. Yet the government opted instead to funnel the masks through pharmacies and clinics, introducing an unnecessary extra layer into the process.(5)

As with most other recent national efforts to combat the pandemic, Covid.gov comes far too late and offers far too little. We can do better.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• To boost or not to boost, that is the complicated question: Lisa Jarvis

• What if we continued to wear masks on trains and planes forever? : Justin Fox

• Improving ventilation will improve more than Covid-19: Lisa Jarvis

(1) Some of the pages linked from there are more up-to-date, for example, the “mask guide” and information on mask requirements for public transport.

(2) I was simply told that the site had at some point received masks to distribute, which it would distribute “while supplies lasted”.

(3) Paradoxically, this is the reverse mistake of what the US government made with vaccines, where they built their own infrastructure from scratch instead of relying on pharmacies and health centers, which were already well optimized for the distribution of vaccines.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Scott Duke Kominers is an MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and a faculty member of Harvard’s Department of Economics. Previously, he was a Junior Scholar at the Harvard Society of Fellows and a Senior Scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago.

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