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Vaccine ‘train wreck’ leaves Tampa Bay seniors scrambling for shots

Hillsborough County’s vaccination phone line was receiving an estimated 2,000 phone calls per minute at midday, a spokeswoman said. Websites and phone lines were down for hours.
Florida Department of Health medical workers prepare to give seniors a COVID-19 vaccination in the parking lot of the Gulf View Square Mall in New Port Richey. The Florida Department of Health in Pasco County is held their first drive-through COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Gulf View Square Mall in New Port Richey.
Florida Department of Health medical workers prepare to give seniors a COVID-19 vaccination in the parking lot of the Gulf View Square Mall in New Port Richey. The Florida Department of Health in Pasco County is held their first drive-through COVID-19 vaccination clinic at Gulf View Square Mall in New Port Richey. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jan. 4
Updated Jan. 5

Ruth Kern began refreshing the Pinellas County health department website minutes before the vaccine registration portal went live at noon Monday. She couldn’t get through.

The 66-year-old retired Gulfport resident was eager to sign up for a coronavirus vaccine, and Monday was supposed to be when she and other seniors across Tampa Bay finally could.

But the day left local seniors feeling no closer to receiving immunization from a virus that’s killed hundreds of thousands across the country. Instead, the overwhelming demand jammed up phone lines and website servers for hours, leaving seniors without answers or any information on what to do next.

Similar issues have been reported across the state as Gov. Ron DeSantis pressures hospitals — already tasked with administering shots to health care workers and caring for a surging number of coronavirus patients — to play a bigger role in vaccinating the general public.

Experts have called instead for more coordination from the state and local health departments. “There’s just too many people that have to be vaccinated,” Mary Jo Trepka, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Florida International University told the Miami Herald.

Related: Desantis: If hospitals don't give coronavirus vaccines out fast enough, they'll lose their shots

Monday’s chaos built on the confusion that’s surrounded Florida’s vaccine rollout over the last month. DeSantis’ executive order on Dec. 23 said people 65 and older would be the first among the general public to receive vaccines, after health care workers and long-term care residents. But many are still unsure how to access them and can’t seem to find answers.

By 7 p.m. Monday, Pinellas County had suspended registration online and over the phone. Hillsborough County’s health department had expanded its call center hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. beginning Tuesday to accommodate the demand.

Related: TUESDAY UPDATE: Vaccine registration limited to phones only for now in Pinellas, Hillsborough

Kern, the retiree from Gulfport, tried reaching the health department by phone and email, too, when the website didn’t work, she said. The phone line was out of order, and she got an automated email response telling her to “keep trying.” She had given up by 2 p.m.

Anthony Isch, a retired 67-year-old from Largo, said he tried to call at least 75 times. Mostly, the calls failed. When they didn’t, the line rang three times then disconnected before anyone answered.

“I’m just flabbergasted and beside myself at how unorganized everything is,” Isch said. “How can all the websites be down and the phone lines be down? How can everything be down? It’s a train wreck.”

Related: Here’s why Florida’s information technology projects keep failing

Hillsborough County opened its online registration to people 65 and older on Monday, too, starting at 9 a.m. It crashed within minutes due to high traffic. “Please expect continued delays,” the health department tweeted an hour later.

Judy Swan, an 80-year-old resident of Tampa, was one of the thousands of people who spent the day calling the county’s hotline to secure appointments for her and her 82-year-old husband. The process was “frustrating,” she said. “Poorly planned and executed.”

Swan estimated calling hundreds of times, continuously meeting a busy signal or being disconnected. When she finally had her appointment request accepted online, the website crashed.

“Why must it be so hard?” Swan pleaded.

Hillsborough’s website appeared to be working by 5 p.m., after phone lines closed for the day. For hours, online 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 users to submit information or select a day for an 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, of Tampa. “Someone has to take some action and perhaps, help make things right.”

Hillsborough spokeswoman Liana Lopez said the county’s vaccination phone line was receiving an estimated 2,000 phone calls per minute at midday. If callers receive a busy tone, they should hang up and try dialing in again before 5 p.m., she said.

By 3 p.m., there were still thousands of vaccine appointments available, Lopez said, and the county was working to fix the scheduling glitches as quickly as possible. Appointments are set to start Wednesday.

The Pinellas health department also acknowledged problems with its registration system in an afternoon news release. “We understood that there would be an enthusiastic response, and we are working to promptly resolve the issues,” it read.

Pinellas is set to start vaccinating seniors Tuesday, and the department expects to distribute about 400 shots a day, spokesman Tom Iovino said.

The rollouts of vaccines in Pasco and Hernando counties have been less bumpy. Pasco started vaccinating seniors last week using an online registration system where appointments went quickly without crashing the website. The county isn’t making appointments over the phone.

“We understand that it’s been difficult to secure a spot,” Pasco health officials said in a message to residents. “We only received a very small supply of vaccines (3,500) at this time for a population of approximately 130,000 residents over the age of 65.”

Fake Eventbrite sites, posing as local health departments and charging people for vaccination appointments, led to some seniors showing up to Pasco points saying they had a slot, only to be told it was fraudulent, said department spokeswoman Melissa Watts.

The department isn’t sure how many people signed up through the fake website, Watts said. “There could still be people thinking they have appointments and they don’t. It’s really a shame.”

The Pinellas health department also shared a warning about a fake site Monday. It still up online Monday night but has been reported to Eventbrite and law enforcement, Iovino said.

In Hernando County, the health department started setting appointments by phone last week, and seniors began getting shots Monday. About 100 people will be vaccinated per day, said spokesperson Danielle Taylor. But all appointments for this week and next are already booked.

“We have been overwhelmed with the response from the residents of Hernando County who want the vaccine,” Taylor said. “We are going through thousands and thousands of telephone messages.”

The department plans to call those residents back, she said, and will move from scheduling appointments over the phone to an online registration portal later this week.

Staff writers Romy Ellenbogen and Jack Evans contributed to this report, which also used reporting from the Miami Herald.

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