TAIPEI (CNA) — Over 88,000 people were able to pre-order their weekly ration of surgical face masks online as of Thursday afternoon after a new mask-purchasing system went online earlier in the day, although the system temporarily crashed due to overload, according to the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC).
Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads the CECC, said that as of 2 p.m., 88,000 people had placed orders via either the government website https://emask.taiwan.gov.tw/msk/index.jsp, or via a National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) mobile app.
Chen said many users complained about being unable to link to the system after it first went online on 9 a.m., but the situation was quickly resolved.
To use the online ordering system, consumers either need to have access to a card reader or need to download the NHIA app.
After logging onto the website, consumers with a card reader linked to their computers will be required to insert either their National Health Insurance (NHI) or Citizen Digital Certificate card to place their order for three masks, the maximum allowable per purchase.
According to Cabinet spokeswoman Kolas Yotaka, those who use their Citizen Digital Certificate cards to make their orders said the system went smoothly for them, but those who purchased with their NHI cards, either through the website or via the mobile app, complained about being unable to access the system.
According to the NHIA, more than 87,250 people logged on to the mobile app when it first went online at 9 a.m., causing an overload.
Kolas said the government is now expanding the bandwidth of the NHIA’s Internet system to accommodate the high demand.
She called on people who wish to make online purchases to take their time because the trial run for the system will run for a whole week and people can use it at any time from March 12 to March 18.
The CECC previously estimated that some 2.33 million people will take advantage of the online sales during the one-week trial period, buying a total of 7 million masks.
If the number of buyers exceeds the estimated 2.33 million masks during the trial period, the CECC said, the government will introduce a weekly lottery system to determine who can purchase masks online.
Meanwhile, Deputy Health Minister Ho Chi-kung (何啟功) said that so far, foreign nationals who do not have NHI cards will not be able to buy their three-masks-per-week rations online, since the purchase requires verification of their NHI number.
He also said the government will consider building the online mask-purchase website and app in both Chinese and English.
Foreign nationals who do not have NHI cards can still buy their rationed masks by showing their Alien Resident Certificate (ARC) or entry permit at local drugstores as they did before, according to the ministry.
According to the CECC, masks purchased via the website or the NHIA app can be paid for with a credit card, at an ATM or via online banking, adding that the details for making payments will be issued to the buyers March 19 upon completion of the online or mobile transaction.
The cost of the masks will remain at NT$5 (US$0.16) each, but online purchases will have a shipping fee of NT$7 per order, which means each transaction will total NT$22, according to the CECC.
During the pickup period March 26-April 1 at designated convenience stores, buyers will have to show their NHI cards or proof of purchase, it added.
Due to high demand amid the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic, the government has been requisitioning all masks produced in the country and rationing them after supplying hospitals and healthcare workers.
Under the rationing system that began Feb. 6, anyone can buy disposable surgical masks on Sundays at designated drugstores and pharmacies upon presentation of their NHI cards, while on the other days of the week, sales are staggered based on the last digit of the ID number on the buyer’s NHI card.
However, because of the limited supply and the sales times set by the pharmacies, people have been complaining about the time it takes to wait in line to buy the masks, with office workers in particular having said it is a problem for them.
With the introduction of the new online system, which is based on the existing online taxpaying system, the government is offering an alternative and will make any necessary adjustments after the one-week trial period, according to the health minister.