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Tampa Bay officials say vaccine sign-up bugs fixed, but delays unavoidable

Hillsborough got 26,000 calls in one minute on the first day of registration for 9,000 available appointments. Pinellas expects similar demand.
Motorists form lines to receive COVID-19 vaccinations at the Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds, one of the vaccination distribution sites in Hillsborough County, in Plant City on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021.
Motorists form lines to receive COVID-19 vaccinations at the Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds, one of the vaccination distribution sites in Hillsborough County, in Plant City on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jan. 14
Updated Jan. 15

When Susan Hoffman learned that Pinellas County next week will launch a patient portal with CDR Maguire to handle coronavirus vaccine appointments, her first thought was “good luck.”

Hillsborough launched its online portal and call center with the Miami-based emergency management consulting firm on Tuesday. Hoffman, 71, tried to log on when her age group window opened at 2 p.m., but she just got a spinning widget. When she was finally able to fill out the lengthy questionnaire and select times for her first and second dose, she was met with an error message three times.

She tried calling, but a recording said she faced a seven-hour wait.

“It was beyond frustrating,” said Hoffman, a retired attorney who lives in St. Petersburg.

Pinellas and Pasco counties announced this week they hired CDR Maguire to manage online and telephone appointment registrations for the limited weekly shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine. They follow the system rollout in Hillsborough County on Tuesday that brought a flood of complaints from residents.

On Tuesday, the system successfully scheduled all 9,000 appointments available for the week for people ages 65 and older, the only segment of the public given access by Gov. Ron DeSantis after health care workers and long term care facilities. But those who didn’t get a time slot were often met with error messages and busy phone lines that caused confusion and wasted hours trying to get in.

CDR Maguire Executive Vice President Tina Vidal-Duart said frozen screens and errors were a result of the sheer volume of hits to the system. She said a now-resolved coding glitch caused users to receive an error message when they should have seen a message saying all appointments were filled.

“What we’re seeing is an inundation, a volume that no one has ever seen,” Vidal-Duart said in an interview Wednesday. “I can only equate it to Black Friday at Walmart, where you have thousands of people all trying to go through one door.”

Besides the counties’ work distributing vaccines in partnership with state Department of Health, vaccines are being distributed by hospitals, pharmacies and community health centers.

But the Hillsborough phone line received 26,000 calls in one minute on Tuesday, causing the automated system to calculate hours-long waits to speak to an agent, Vidal-Duart said. The registration window for people ages 65 to 74 opened at 2 p.m., but Vidal-Duart said all 4,000 appointments for that group were booked within five minutes.

The county offered 2,000 appointments for people ages 85 and older and 3,000 appointments for those ages 75 to 84 during earlier time windows.

Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Tim Dudley said “no technology is without limitations” and he was satisfied that CDR Health successfully booked all 9,000 appointments for the week on Tuesday.

That allowed for vaccinations at the county’s three sites to be administered Wednesday through Friday. Dudley said the main problem was the limited supply, and the system cannot schedule appointments when there is no more vaccine available.

“Where the rubber meets the road is when we’re putting the vaccine in arms and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Dudley said.

Because Hillsborough County has not yet received notification from the state for how many vaccines it will receive next week, appointment scheduling for next week has not yet opened. But patients can still set up their online profiles at www.patientportalfl.com.

Pinellas County has also not yet announced when it will open the registration through the CDR website and phone line for next week’s distribution of roughly 10,000 vaccines. In addition to the three state Department of Health vaccine distribution sites, Pinellas plans to open two more sites but has not yet disclosed those locations.

Pinellas marketing and communications director Barbra Hernandez said the county has no reason to be concerned over CDR’s technology capabilities for next week’s rollout. Unlike Hillsborough’s registration windows tiered by age, Pinellas will use a template that is open for all ages over 65 at once.

She said demand far exceeds the vaccine shipments from the state, making it so appointments book up “sometimes in a matter of minutes.”

“So it isn’t necessarily a function of the technology, but rather the demand and the delays that are a result of too many calls or users trying to get a satisfactory outcome at the same time,” Hernandez said.

“Fortunately, the State is rolling out additional vaccine distribution channels through places like pharmacies, Publix and healthcare providers that we believe will be very helpful in expediting the process of getting shots in arms,” she said.

Along with the three Tampa Bay counties, CDR Maguire has also contracted to provide reservation software to Orange County. The firm, which specializes in disaster recovery, pivoted to COVID-19 response this year through millions of dollars worth of contracts with the state for testing infrastructure and emergency medical facilities.

• • •

How to register for the COVID-19 vaccine through Florida Department of Health and county locations:

Hillsborough

All appointments through Jan. 15 are booked. Patients can set up an online account but cannot yet register for appointments for next week. The next registration window has not yet been announced.

Online: www.patientportalfl.com

Phone: (850) 848-5287 - but registration for appointments next week is not yet open

Pasco

Online: www.patientportalfl.com

Phone: (844) 770-8548

Pinellas

Online: www.patientportalfl.com patients can set up an account, but registration to make an appointment is not yet open

Phone: number not yet released

• • •

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