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Opinion: People didn't pay attention to age rules and overwhelmed vaccine call centres

About 1.7 million calls were logged by mid-morning on launch day.
A COVID-19 vaccination site on the University of Victoria campus.

The Health Ministry opened phone lines Monday for people to make vaccination appointments for those age 90 and over, and for Indigenous people 65 and over.

The qualifying eligibility looked pretty clear. They were widely reported and amplified on all social media. But it looks like it escaped the notice of an undetermined but huge number of people.

About 1.7 million calls were logged by mid-morning and many more came in throughout the day.

There’s no way the relatively small number of people who were eligible could have generated that volume, even if they or family on their behalf were calling multiple times.

A large number of people who didn’t grasp the age qualification called in and couldn’t get through. Then they called again, and again, and again. That traffic likely blocked some calls from eligible elders, and just compounded the frustration of the callers.

By mid-afternoon Monday, Health Minister Adrian Dix said 10,000 appointments had been made. But a significant number were made through the one health authority – Fraser – that had online capability.

So the phone booking system handled something under that total. Its progress, but it came with a lot of confusion and ­frustration, some of it self-inflicted.

The arithmetic makes it clear how.

There are 47,000 people over the age of 90, and about 20,000 have already had their first shots. There are 35,000 Indigenous people over 65 and about 8,000 have been vaccinated. So the target audience on Monday and for the rest of this week is in the range of 54,000.

Slotting that number of people into a clinic system is a big job. It’s doable, but not with thousands of other people clogging the booking system.

Any new system could be expected to have start-up problems. What’s concerning about this rocky launch is the age cohort the ministry was aiming for was the smallest.

The age eligibility goes down in five-year increments, a week at a time. So the numbers of people to be processed increases dramatically each week, until the province-wide online system goes live in mid-April and takes some of the pressure off the phone system.

That’s what had Dix urging people to wait their turn, even while promising to bulk up the call centre.

“While I’m grateful to see the enthusiasm we have, we ask everyone who’s outside the age groups for this week to please be patient and wait your turn.

“Calling this week if you’re outside of this first age group will not speed up your turn but it may cause more delay.”

Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry are also expecting more out of the service provider handling the system. Dix told people who waited on hold for lengthy periods Monday he understood their frustration “and our call centre provider has to understand that we have to do better in responding as well.”

Henry said it wasn’t possible to put a full online system together in time, even though they wanted it weeks ago. “It does take time to get those things together.”

The Fraser Health Authority was the only one that had a system robust enough to handle the work, she said.

“It will get better.”

Although booking the shots by phone was glitchy, the doses themselves are starting to arrive in force again after a weeks-long lull. More than 330,000 doses have been administered in B.C. to date. The majority are first doses. About 86,000 got the required second dose before B.C. changed policy and tripled the time between shots in order to stretch the coverage. The number of second doses now is increasing at a much smaller rate.

The number of vaccine doses being delivered is increasing and the first shipment of the recently approved AstraZeneca product is expected this week.

Just So You Know: The bright side to the huge crush of demand is that “vaccine hesitancy” doesn’t look to be the worry it once was.

Handling vaccine “enthusiasm” has replaced that as a concern.