Premier promises vaccination call centre problems will be fixed; minister blames Telus

The first day of operation for B.C.’s immunization call centres was profoundly disappointing, said Premier John Horgan, who promised that problems will be fixed.

Call centres were overwhelmed Monday by people seeking vaccine appointments. Within 21/2 hours, 1.7 million calls had come in from around the province, as people repeatedly tried to connect but were met with recordings or busy signals.

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“I think we’ve acknowledged fairly clearly that we had a failure of a contractor yesterday and steps are being taken to correct that,” Horgan said Tuesday, referring to Telus.

“I know all British Columbians understand that when you’re undertaking the largest immunization program in B.C. history, there will be some bumps along the road. The good news is, it was Day 1, and we have many, many days ahead of us.”

By day’s end Monday, 14,949 appointments had been booked. Of the five health regions, Fraser Health was the only one with an online system and it booked 8,722 appointments; only 369 were booked in Vancouver Coastal, where Telus was the sole provider of call agents.

The province asked that only eligible people call this week for vaccinations that begin March 15: non-Indigenous people born in or before 1931 and Indigenous people born in or before 1956.

In the Island Health region, callers reported trying to get through for hours on Monday. After a day of dialling, 2,395 out of 14,300 eligible people on the Island got appointments.

“Quite frankly, we had a bad day yesterday … we’re taking steps today to correct that,” Horgan said. “I’m happy to accept responsibility and blame for this if that’s what British Columbians are seeking, but I think more importantly, British Columbians are seeking vaccinations.”

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said there were both technical issues — dropped calls, for instance — and staffing problems. The government had asked Telus if it was prepared for large call volumes and was reassured that it was, said Dix.

“You can imagine how ­concerned we were about the opening up of booking yesterday, how often we asked whether staffing was in place, how many suggestions and offers we had — to supplement that if Telus needed it — and we were repeatedly told, as late as 9 p.m. Sunday night, that they had the situation in hand — and they did not.”

It was not clear Tuesday from the health minister’s answers why a province-wide online system was not available and why Fraser Health is the only region offering online booking.

A B.C.-wide online system will be ready for April 12, when immunizations will open to more people, starting with the 75 to 79 age group, Dix said.

Earlier, during question period in the legislature, interim B.C. Liberal Leader Shirley Bond said the government was unprepared for the vaccination rollout, despite having a year to get ready.

Dix said Telus did not meet its contractual obligations. “We are taking steps, of course, to beef up our ability to work and to support independently of Telus, and Telus has made commitments that these questions will be resolved — the technical questions and the staffing questions — ASAP.”

More people are being trained, he said.

B.C. Liberal MLA Todd Stone called the rollout a “fiasco” and said rather than blaming Telus, the minister should be “looking in the mirror” because the rollout was the responsibility of the government. “On that responsibility, they failed miserably.”

Stone asked why there wasn’t a province-wide standard for online and phone bookings. On the online question, Dix said when he became health minister, the health authorities “had different platforms, online platforms and health records systems.” While improvements have been made, “that’s the reality of the situation.”

Telus CEO Darren Entwistle apologized, saying: “We are incredibly sorry for the frustrations that British Columbians have experienced trying to connect to the call centres.”

He said the company has been “working around the clock to scale capacity and respond to the unprecedented demand.”

On Tuesday up to 5 p.m., 12,346 people in B.C. had booked an appointment, including 2,487 in Island Health and 3,103 in Vancouver Coastal.

The province reported 550 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, including seven in Island Health.

Two new deaths were announced, for a total of 1,393 in B.C., including 28 in Island Health. Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 death in the province.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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

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