Call centres in British Columbia received a million calls in the first hour after they opened to receive COVID-19 vaccine appointments for some of the province’s oldest residents, according to the doctor in charge of the province’s rollout plan.
Dr. Penny Ballem, who is also chair of Vancouver Coastal Health, spoke on CBC’s The Early Edition just after 8 a.m. Monday morning and said while call agents were hit with a “massive onslaught” the minute the lines opened, it was not unexpected and should not worry eligible residents who have not yet secured an appointment.
“Everyone’s going to get their vaccine,” said Ballem, adding it’s a big job, but the province is prepared.
The call centres opened at 7 a.m. at the Fraser, Island, Interior, Northern and Vancouver Coastal health authorities to allow appointments for people 90 years and older and Indigenous people who are 65 and older or identify as elders.
In less than three hours after they opened, 1.7 million calls came in.
Karen Bloemink, vice-president of pandemic response with Interior Health, asks people not to phone the call centre ahead of their eligibility dates that are based on their birth years.
“Call volumes will be closely monitored and if there are some delays initially, we will be working in the background to adjust and respond quickly,” she said. “Once an individual becomes eligible to receive their vaccine, they can book their appointment at any time.”
Plenty of spots remain
Health Minister Adrian Dix says there are about 47,000 people in the province who are 90 and older and 35,000 who are Indigenous people over 65, so he urged anyone who is not calling on behalf of someone in those categories to hang up the phone.
“I very much appreciate the enthusiasm of everybody calling in. But I would ask that people allow those who are eligible this week to book appointments,” he said. “That is a massive number of phone calls. If that were to continue, obviously no phone system would respond to that.”
Dix says health authorities are booking thousands of appointments and plenty of time slots remain.
There are still five days left to book for people in those age groups, so if callers don’t get through today, he says there is still time.
“This is not first-come, first-serve,” said Dix. “There are going to be lots of opportunities.”
As of the 2016 Census, British Columbia had 42,040 people over the age of 90. <br><br>With 1.4 million calls for a vaccine appointment so far, that means there’s been 33 calls for each eligible person.
Dix says the phone lines are the focus right now because of the age of those who are eligible.
Fraser Health was the only authority to launch an online booking system on the first day. Web-based platforms across health regions will become a larger component of booking as younger age categories get their turn, Dix said.
Dix says the “enormous” response on Monday reflects the significant support for vaccination in the province.
Some residents calling on behalf of their elderly parents spent all morning trying to get through on the phone lines.
Elaine Husdon, whose father is 95, said she called the Fraser Health number when the line opened at 7 a.m., “exactly on the dot,” and received a busy signal.
She said she has been redialing constantly and can’t even get on hold — she either gets a busy signal or a recording that says there is a high call volume that instructs her to hang up and try again.
Husdon said her father lives with her family and she decided to take a leave of absence from her job at a school because of the risk of contracting the virus and bringing it home to him.
Julie Tapley, whose 90-year-old father lives in the Vancouver Coastal Health region, also said she only received a busy signal every time she has called.
She said she spent two hours between 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. constantly pressing redial.
Tapley said she wishes that the health authority had set up an online booking system from the beginning, as Fraser Health did.
“I feel a bit frustrated because I know it’s very important to my dad to get (the vaccine),” she said, adding her parents have had a lonely year during the pandemic.
“I just want to get in the queue and start the process so that they can return to their normal lives,” said Tapley.
I have been calling Island Health since 7 a.m. Am calling on behalf of my 95-year-old parents. One eligible caller = many logged calls. I have to listen to a 49 second voicemail each time and then am told the line is no longer in service! An astonishingly inefficient system.
Who is eligible now
Seniors are being asked to phone during the following weeks, based on their age:
- For the week of March 8: seniors born in 1931 or earlier (aged 90 and above) or Indigenous seniors born in 1956 or earlier (aged 65 and above).
- For the week of March 15: seniors born in 1936 or earlier (aged 85 and above).
- For the week of March 22: seniors born in 1941 or earlier (aged 80 and above).
Once someone becomes eligible, they are able to book at any time — meaning no one will miss their window for booking an appointment.
The first appointments will be available on March 15.