1.7M calls in less than three hours: COVID-19 vaccine phone lines swamped on first day

Just over three hours after first dialing Island Health’s call centre to book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for her elderly parents Monday morning, Terry Lisson got through — and was put on hold.

Almost four hours later she booked parents Don and Joan Hepburn, both born in 1930, for vaccinations at Archie Browning Sports Centre in Esquimalt on Monday, the couple’s 69th anniversary. She’s grateful but frustrated and surprised at the process.

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Lisson was not alone. Callers told the Times Colonist they got through to Island Health’s call centre after hours of trying. Some made it to the the hold stage only to have their calls dropped. Some never got an appointment. By the end of the day, 2,395 callers to Island Health had received appointments; the total for the province was 14,949.

Many callers complained the province and health authorities should have been better prepared for the call volumes and offered an online option, as Fraser Health Authority did, while others blamed situations where multiple friends or family called on behalf of one person, or people who called although they were not in the eligible group.

Monday was the first day the province opened five call centres for non-Indigenous people born in or before 1931 and Indigenous people born in or before 1956 to book appointments for vaccinations that will begin March 15.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said only about 82,000 people in B.C. fall into those groups. In the Island Health region, about 11,000 people who are 90 and older and about 3,400 Indigenous people who are 65 and older have not yet been vaccinated.

“In the first 2 1/2 hours we had 1.7 million calls, so obviously we’re getting called beyond that group of people,” said Dix.

“I very much appreciate the enthusiasm of everybody calling in,” said Dix. “But I would ask that people allow those who are eligible this week to book an appointment to have priority.”

General immunizations begin April 12 for the 75 to 79 age group. A system that has a larger capacity to accept appointments should be ready by then.

Henry said developing a seamless online and phone system for such a large project earlier “was not possible.”

“But I will say that the call centre provider that has been charged with working on this needs to step up as well, as well as the health authorities,” said Henry.

Telus said in a statement that call volumes were 17 times the population currently eligible to book an appointment. It said it’s working with the province to train more representatives as quickly as possible. “It will get better,” said Telus. “But the challenge we have is that we don’t have a system that allowed us to do this seamlessly that was pre-built.”

Island Health said it has 50 call agents and another 45 to step in if problems arose. Victoria Schmid, vice president of pandemic planning for Island Health, said an online option could be available sooner than originally expected.

Lisson, who woke up at 6:30 a.m. “to have everything ready” heard the same high-call-volume announcement repeatedly or was greeted with a busy signal as she tried to connect for more than three hours.

Her sister-in-law, who called for her own parents, dialed in for 1 hour and 20 minutes after which her call was answered and she was put on hold another 56 minutes to book an appointment.

Justine Semmens of Victoria said she called “in vain all day” for her 96-year old grandmother. At one point she got through and was put on hold for over 45 minutes “only to have the call dropped.” She wondered “how helpless elders who don’t have a younger loved one to call for them must feel.”

Rachel Franklin, calling since 7 a.m. for a 91-year-old friend, heard an initial message that she had reached the Island Health booking line but then kept getting a message that the number “is not in service.”

Jocelyn Bates said she called 23 times for her 93-year old mother but kept getting an automatic message to call back.

Simone Decosse called for her 101-year-old father. She started at 7 a.m. and was still calling at 1:30 p.m. A retired public servant, Decosse said she knows how hard people are working in the system and blamed British Columbians trying “to bypass the system for their own advantage.”

“For goodness sake,” Decosse said, “we are all in this together and this is the time for our elders.”

“What makes these people think their needs are greater than that of others?” Decosse said. “All they succeed in doing is clogging up the system. If five people are calling on behalf of one person, that’s four eligible persons who will be bounced out because the lines are busy.”

The province staggered call-in dates for all five health authorities in hopes that people will call only when it’s their turn.

“Remember that we have enough vaccine for everyone to get vaccinated,” Schmid said. “So, your turn will come, and we just need everyone to be patient right now.”

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

> Island Health call centre: 1-833-348-4787, open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

Only call this week for non-Indigenous people with year of birth in or before 1931 and for Indigenous people with year of birth in or before 1956.

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