ORANGE COUNTY, CA —At first glance, it seemed the perfect solution to Orange County’s gargantuan problem of quickly vaccinating 3.2 million residents against COVID-19. It was something called Othena, a website and phone app its creators claimed could handle “the entire administration of vaccines.”
The Othena app could schedule countless appointments. The Othena app would be multilingual. The Othena app was the “Best Solution” allegedly endorsed by Operation Warp Speed.
In reality, the Othena app crashed the first day it launched in Orange County. It was not released with Spanish or Vietnamese options. One month later, nearly 300,000 seniors are still waiting to find out when Othena will allow them to make an appointment for the potentially life-saving vaccine. And Operation Warp Speed tells Patch it does not endorse products or apps.
So how did Orange County come to pay $1.2 million upfront in a no-bid contract for the Othena app that County Supervisor Don Wagner later declared “a mess?”
Who built OC’s new vaccination software?
Composite Apps Inc., a small Irvine company, developed the Othena program by reworking existing software into something new. Its subdivision, CURA Patient, marketed the product that would allow county health officials to track the progress of those vaccinated.
The Othena application was officially dubbed the “CURA Patient COVID-19 vaccine administration application” would track the progress of those vaccinated through their first and second coronavirus shots.
CURA Patient touted its product with a testimonial from Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s effort to accelerate the manufacture and national distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, using the official federal logo on its marketing materials and claiming that Operation Warp Speed endorsed it as the “best solution we have seen.”
Apparently, that was enough for Orange County’s Health Care Agency. Last November, it awarded Composite Apps Inc. a no-bid two-year, $1.2 million contract and paid upfront for the Othena app. (Read the full contract application below).
A rough start for Othena
Almost as soon as Othena made its online debut on Jan. 14, user criticism began.
On the day of launch, the Othena website crashed under the weight of concerned residents attempting to register. Spanish and Vietnamese language speakers found they had no language choices other than English, and glitches with the program promoted confusion rather than a notification that an account had been successfully created.
It wasn’t until Jan. 20 that the Othena system began sending emails alerting users of available appointments, giving account holders a four-hour window to claim their virtual place in line.
Betty Olson, a retired professor from the University of California, Irvine, discussed her disillusionment with the Othena app as she attempted to help her 77-year-old husband register for his vaccine.
“It took a month for him to get registered,” she told Patch. “I dialed the hotline endlessly and was never asked his age or his condition to prioritize. This is a mess, and it may be costing lives.”
Olson talked about the importance of the product and questioned how much testing had been done before it was released.
Olson’s is one of the hundreds of emails that Patch has received from Orange County residents 65 and older who have struggled with registering on the Othena app.
Othena launched with users desperate to be vaccinated as unwitting guinea pigs.
“For something so important, it should have been beta-tested, and … it deserves serious investigation,” Olson said.
Fixing problems on the fly
Over a month after Othena’s release, many initial bugs have been worked out, with language translations now available in Spanish and Vietnamese. Emails are at last reaching residents for appointments.
But other bugs remain. One Patch reader said the app allowed her to register for an appointment even though she didn’t meet the criteria for one. When she and her husband arrived at the Disneyland Super POD site, they were turned away.
Some users continue to wonder if Othena is functioning at optimum efficiency. The app is currently running weeks behind in scheduling appointments, according to the official website.
Othena was scheduling appointments on Wednesday for people who registered on Jan. 19. By Thursday, it was scheduling registrants from Jan. 22. County health care spokespeople repeat that as more vaccines arrive, more appointments will open up.
“Each appointment gives the user a three-day window, with new appointments offered every evening,” Health Care Agency spokeswoman Deanne Thompson said. “This schedule is due to vaccine availability and the need to plan for the appropriate number of first and second dose appointments.”
If you don’t fit the 65 or older criteria, don’t schedule an appointment, the agency said. If you do, workers at the Super PODs will turn you away.
Many questions deal with scheduling a second dose appointment. Orange County health care officials said Wednesday that everyone needing a second dose will get one.
“If you haven’t received a second dose appointment, and your date is coming up, go to the Disneyland Resort Super POD on the day your second dose is due (on the back of your vaccination card),” the Health Care Agency told concerned residents over Twitter. “The Othena team will be able to assist.”
Do and Chaffee have turned their focus to the county’s relationship with CalOptima, an organization that assists residents on Medi-Cal and Medicaid, to see that older people enrolled in those programs don’t have to wait as long for their vaccinations.
Othena officials said Thursday that the app has registered 623,334 patients into its system as of Jan. 1. Of those, 169,440 have received at least one vaccination. Another 192,003 residents are waiting for their vaccination appointments scheduled through the app.
That leaves 261,891 residents in Othena’s “waiting room,” refreshing their email as they wait for word that their turn has arrived.
Meanwhile, the county has become more vocal about additional vaccination resources. A total of 80 percent of vaccines were sent by the state to area hospitals, while only 20 percent were sent to the county, according to Thompson.
Dr. Margaret Bredehoft, the health agency’s deputy director of public health services, defended the Othena contract in a news conference in late January. The app is the most efficient solution to the county’s vaccination registration program, she said.
Startup problems were to be expected, including delays in offering the five language options required by the contract, because the agency had to make sure the website and mobile application actually worked before translation could begin, she said. The Health Care Agency approved the contract based on previous work CURA Patient and Composite Apps had done within the county, Orange County’s public information manager, Molly Nichelson, told Patch. The agency provided no specifics about the earlier work.
Details about Composite Apps and CURA Patient are nearly as elusive as doses of the coronavirus vaccine itself. Their colorful websites provide only sketchy biographies of their officers and key management team and provide virtually no information about the identities of the Fortune 500 companies they boast as clients.
What we know
Composite Apps Inc. was incorporated in 2004 by Mission Viejo resident and director Long T. Nguyen, the only officer, according to Delaware corporation records. The company was registered to do business in California in 2018. CURA Patient was formed as a Delaware corporation that same year, with Nguyen as the only officer and director. That company is not registered in California, according to records at the secretary of state’s office.
Along with Nguyen, the Composite Apps management team consists of Charles Rockefeller 2nd, grandson of American industrial giant John D. Rockefeller, who serves as head of partnerships; Norm Katz, business development director; and Kevin Pethtel, the company’s chief of staff.
CURA Patient identifies its co-founders as Nguyen, Rockefeller, and Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee. Nguyen is the chief executive officer. Rockefeller is head of partnerships. Mukherjee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and associate professor of medicine at New York’s Columbia University, is listed as the company’s clinical advisor. Katz and Pethtel serve in the same positions as they do at Composite Apps.
The Othena app “being piloted in California will allow individuals to sign up for vaccination appointments, health care providers to manage their immunization rosters, and public health authorities to track the overall trends,” Mukherjee told Barron’s Magazine in a December interview.
Mukherjee confirmed to Patch that he was a medical advisor to CURA Patient. He identified himself as “a virologist by training” and added, “As an oncologist, I understand the complexities of vaccinating populations. I have no knowledge of whether I am or am not on the website. My principal interest is to ensure the safe and efficient distribution of vaccinations.”
He added: “I’m afraid I’m too busy with clinical responsibilities and unable to answer any individual questions.” He declined to answer questions about how he became affiliated with CURA Patient and directed Patch to the Orange County communications department “since I have no knowledge about any of the other questions.”
CURA Patient’s other co-founders – Nguyen and Rockefeller – did not respond to Patch requests for comment as of publication.
Formal records request made
Patch has submitted a formal public record request to the county for documents related to the process of selecting the Othena app.
Since January, the Orange County Board of Supervisors and the Orange County Health Care Agency have touted the Othena app as the preferred method of registering for coronavirus vaccinations.
A county spokesperson told Patch that Composite Apps has been available to make changes and fixes to the app as issues are ferreted out. But it is Orange County’s 65 and older population that worries about its effectiveness.
Mukherjee has conceded that Othena was still under development a month after the county’s contract was signed. He told The New York Times in an interview published on Christmas Eve that it was important to consider the logistical problems of distributing and tracking vaccinations.
“This is a data-management challenge,” he said. “We are piloting Othena software to address this issue in Orange County [CA] and other places in the country.”
In their proposal, Composite Apps and CURA Patient sold Othena as a product endorsed by Operation Warp Speed.
But the U.S. Defense Department, which administers Operation Warp Speed, denied the claim. “The Department does not imply endorsement of any commercial products, nor should companies make this implication,” said Operation Warp Speed spokeswoman Laura Ochoa.
Ochoa added that the Operation Warp Speed logo “is not an official, trademarked government logo, but we prefer its use to be kept internally.”
Another client in the wings
CURA Patient has pitched its product to another federal agency, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and expects this month to be awarded a no-bid contract for the use of what the company calls its “COVID-19 Care Plan Management Solution” at the Long Beach and Washington VA Medical Centers to assist “in managing complex health conditions, specifically for COVID-19 monitoring and management, and promoting social distancing” using artificial intelligence, the company said.
Only CURA Patient met the government’s requirements for the contract out of nine companies who responded to the VA’s solicitation last September, according to documents Patch obtained. This determination was based upon “market research” and review by the department’s technical experts, according to the VA’s justification for awarding the contract without bidding.
The VA did not respond before publication to Patch requests for all documents related to the contract and vendor responses.
It appears CURA Patient is leveraging its relationships with Orange County and the VA to more widely market its application to other state and local governments, using federal funding from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act passed by Congress last year. Orange County used part of its $554.3 million CARES Act allotment to fund the Composite apps contract.
CURA Patient’s Rockefeller said on LinkedIn that the company’s platform “is trusted by the Veterans Administration, lauded by Operation Warp Speed, and has been awarded first prize by the National Artificial Intelligence Institute as the ‘Future of Healthcare.’ It empowers local and state governments to manage vaccine distribution and administration seamlessly and can be up and running in days, all funded by the CARES Act.”
Awaiting the vaccine
Patch has received hundreds of emails from readers over 65 complaining about their experiences with the Othena vaccination process. Most worry that their early January registrations are “lost” or that emails sent to their homes may go unanswered. Some have abandoned the hope of getting vaccinated through the Othena app and are seeking help elsewhere.
Those who are lucky enough to follow the steps and schedule their appointments lauded the process at the “point of dispensing” sites, with some calling their relief a “Christmas morning” feeling.
Still more are waiting.
A group of Laguna Beach residents recently created its own crowdsourced knowledge base on Facebook, tracking the progress of the vaccinated and helping those who are waiting feel not so alone.
The primary problem remains: There aren’t enough vaccines to go around.
South Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett asked her constituents to be patient. “We’re aware that there were challenges with the Othena developer, but I know a lot of due diligence was done,” Bartlett spokesperson Pauline Colvin said in a phone interview. She conceded that “it is possible that when people signed up initially, so many signed up so quickly that their information may have been lost.”
Colvin suggested that anyone with vaccination questions should call 714-834-2000 and navigate the automated questions until she is routed to someone who can help. She also suggested that problems with the Othena app should be routed to [email protected]
“We’ve had frustrated people, but there is the hope of another vaccine coming,” Colvin said. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval, which will add to the vaccine arsenal.
She also advised people with preexisting conditions to “call your primary care physician and ask them. Many hospitals received more vaccine doses than the county Health Care Agency.”
Some county residents have had good luck with getting their vaccine and appointments through Othena. “We registered with Othena and were waiting in the queue for three weeks until we got our email to make the appointment,” retired teacher Dianasaid. “All of my friends have had similar experiences with Othena. The system does work for those of us who are computer savvy.”
Erickson said her concern was for older people who are not and depend on others to secure their appointments. “They need to be able to make an appointment by phone,” she said.
Meanwhile, the move to help more older people and minorities receive their vaccinations is underway with help from CalOptima.
“Right now, our focus is getting our seniors vaccinated as soon as possible,” Do said in a Friday statement. “The (Vaccine Equity Program) will eventually expand to meet the State’s tiered vaccine process to ensure communities impacted by the pandemic get direct access to vaccinations.”
For the rest of us, Orange County remains in Phase 1a as of this report. Vaccination appointments are opened as they are made available, and the county is attempting to get the majority of residents vaccinated by July 4 in what it calls “Operation Independence.”
Share your vaccination experience with Patch in comments or with your Patch Editor in email.
Patch special correspondent Bob Porterfield contributed to this report.