Within minutes of going live on Monday morning, Hillsborough County’s registration website for seniors hoping to get the COVID-19 vaccine had crashed from the high volume of traffic, officials said, leaving scores of people frustrated and confused as they swamped county phone lines and took to social media looking for help.
“Frustrating. Poorly planned and executed,” said Judy Swan, one of the thousands who spent most of Monday making phone call after phone call to the county’s hotline — 888-755-2822 — in hopes of securing a dose of the coveted vaccine.
Swan is 80 and her husband is 82, she said. The Tampa couple spent hours Monday morning attempting to get through the county’s website or phone line. At one point, Judy was accepted to make an appointment, she said, but then the website’s servers crashed yet again. She gave up counting after more than 300 phone calls to the county that were either disconnected or met with busy signals.
“Remember, we are seniors,” Swan said. “Why must it be so hard?”
The plan was for people 65 and older to begin making appointments to receive the highly-sought vaccine on a county-run website that went live at 9 a.m. on Monday: HCCCOVID19Shot.as.me. Distribution is still set to begin on Wednesday and will span four days.
But by Monday afternoon, the website still wasn’t working. Instead, visitors saw only a blank page with the words “500 Internal Service Error.” Other times, the website would appear to be functioning, but then wouldn’t allow the user to submit information or select a day for their appointment.
“I don’t know many people who have the time to sit at the computer all day waiting for the site to work correctly, nor do we have the time to keep re-dialing the phone,” said Sandy Healy, 73, from Tampa. “Someone has to take some action and – perhaps – help make things right.”
Healy had hoped to make an appointment for both herself and her 92-year-old husband to receive the vaccine, she said. But her calls to the county were either met with an endless busy tone, disconnected immediately, or went to a recorded message saying the line is “currently experiencing audio issues” and redirecting callers to contact the main line for the Florida Department of Health, she said. That agency wouldn’t be able to help with scheduling an appointment with the county for vaccination, a spokeswoman said.
Hillsborough County spokeswoman Liana Lopez said the county’s vaccination phone line was receiving an estimated 2,000 phone calls per minute by about midday on Monday. If callers receive a busy tone, they should hang up and try dialing in again before 5 p.m., she said.
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By 3 p.m. on Monday, there were still thousands of vaccine appointments available, she said, and the county was working to fix the scheduling glitches as quickly as possible.
Similar issues with jammed phone lines were reported across the state and in Pinellas County, which also opened up its vaccine registration to the public Monday. For appointments in Pinellas, people can contact the local Health Department office at 727-824-6900 or call their COVID-19 call center at 866-779-6121.
In response to social media comments and phone calls from frustrated users, Hillsborough County officials could offer only the following “approved” statement:
“Due to high-demand, the external registration system and phone center are experiencing service interruptions. Please expect continued delays when attempting to make an appointment as work continues to mitigate the technical issues.”
Hillsborough County, working with the local office for the Florida Department of Health, was initially given only 1,500 doses of the coronavirus vaccine from the state of Florida to distribute. On Monday morning, though, the county announced that Tampa General Hospital has delivered an additional 3,000 doses of the vaccine for distribution amongst seniors ages 65 or older.
With the surprise vaccinations from Tampa General and another anticipated shipment from the state health department, county officials said they hope 9,000 people will receive the first dose of the two-shot vaccine this week.
Hillsborough County Emergency Management also is coordinating with the state to distribute vaccines directly to group homes and other medical facilities that meet the state’s criteria for “assisted living.” The county’s emergency management team said it expects the state to deliver new shipments of vaccines weekly. Those vaccines will be offered to the public through the same appointment process as they become available.
A statement sent Monday from Hillsborough County’s Emergency Operations Center urged the public to remember the state is currently in “Phase 1″ of the vaccine distribution plan outlined by Governor Ron DeSantis.
“Phase I is categorized by limited supply of vaccine availability and is focused on long-term care facilities (residents and staff); front line healthcare workers; and persons 65 years and over,” the statement said. “Limited availability is anticipated over the next several weeks.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly 14.5 percent of the estimated 1.472 million people living in Hillsborough County are 65 or older. That age group accounts for about 25.4 percent of Pinellas County’s population and 22.6 percent of Pasco County’s population.
The vaccines will be administered at four locations spread across the county beginning on Wednesday, Jan. 6, but appointments are mandatory and there is no waiting list, the county said.
The Hillsborough County health department expanded its hours for its call center Monday night. On Tuesday it will operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and appointments are still available, according to a news release. Online registration has been temporarily suspended.
This week’s schedule is as follows:
Wednesday, January 6
- Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds: 2700 W. Risk St., Plant City, FL 33563
- Ed Radice Sports Complex: 14720 Ed Radice Drive, Tampa, FL 33626
Thursday, January 7
- University Mall (parking lot): 2200 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa, FL 33612
- Vance Vogel Sports Complex: 13012 Bullfrog Creek Road, Gibsonton, FL 33534
Friday, January 8
- University Mall (parking lot)
- Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds
- Ed Radice Sports Complex
Saturday, January 9
- University Mall (parking lot)
- Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds
This is a developing story. Stay with www.tampabay.com for more updates.
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