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‘Clown show.’ Hillsborough fires vaccine call center vendor

Commissioners’ concern over coronavirus spikes turned to contempt over the rollout of vaccination appointments for people 65 and older.
Tina Scarborough, a RN with AdventHealth, prepares to administer the COVID-19 vaccine at the AdventHealth Tampa distribution tent last month.
Tina Scarborough, a RN with AdventHealth, prepares to administer the COVID-19 vaccine at the AdventHealth Tampa distribution tent last month. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 6
Updated Jan. 6

TAMPA — Concern over rising Covid-19 cases in Hillsborough County turned quickly to contempt Wednesday as commissioners critiqued the public roll out of vaccinating people 65 and older. The county announced it had fired its private vendor after a crashed web site and malfunctioning appointment system left residents frustrated and angry.

“A clown show,’' said Commissioner Ken Hagan. “Candidly, If this occurred in the private sector somebody’s ass would be fired.”

“It’s been an utter failure,” said Commissioner Stacy White.

“Fiasco,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen.

“That has been a miserable failure,” said Commissioner Mariella Smith.

The county tried to find a fix. It trained 25 county employees to help staff the telephone lines Tuesday, and deputy County Administrator Greg Horwedel told commissioners the county had fired the call center vendor, Onsite Screenings. The company subcontracted the appointment software and web page to Acuity, Horwedel said in a memorandum to commissioners.

The system averaged 2,000 to 7,000 calls per minute Monday, in part, because people hung up and dialed over and over again when they heard a loud busy signal.

By the end of Tuesday, the county had scheduled 9,000 appointments. There are an additional 9,000 doses of the vaccine available for next week, said Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the state Health Department in Hillsborough County. The county has 206,000 people age 65 and older.

Holt said he hoped the state and county will be able to administer 15,000 vaccinations each week in January and to double that capacity in February, because people will need to receive their second dose.

The total number of Covid-19 diagnoses in Hillsborough County increased by nearly 20,000 cases over a 30-day period ending Tuesday. That 33 percent leap, to more than 81,000 positive test results for the coronavirus. And that was before the data released later Wednesday showed an additional 1,152 confirmed cases in Hillsborough.

“We are seeing infections pretty much everywhere,” said Holt.

The county averaged 800 new cases per day over the previous week, and its seven-day average positive test rate is 15.7 percent, a caseload that nearly mirrors the peak community spread in July.

Holt said the region’s hospitals are “strained collectively” by limited staffing at a time that admissions are averaging about 55 a day, approaching the peak admissions of 60 each day in July.

The data also shows patients are “both sicker and staying longer,” Holt told commissioners.

Commissioners emphasized a need for better information to the public on vaccines and to continue the messaging on the need for the public to wear masks and practice social distancing.

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“Pandemic fatigue is setting in,” said Commission Kimberly Overman, “but people are losing their lives.”

Commissioner Gwen Myers urged patience, reminding the commission of the initial troubles with the federal Affordable Health Care Act.

Overman later characterized the rising Covid-19 numbers as “frightening” and called for stepped up enforcement of the county’s mask ordinance, saying some businesses are disregarding the mandate.

Overman proposed two additions to the county’s emergency response to the pandemic. She advocated extending the mask mandate to outdoor areas of bars and restaurants, and to require bars to close as early as 10 p.m.

On a 4-3 vote, the commissioners agreed to consider the outdoor mask requirement at its next meeting. White, Hagan and Myers dissented. Overman’s motion to change closing hours for businesses serving alcohol for on-site consumption died when it failed to gain a second.

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