Clogged phone lines, frustration mar Lee County’s new vaccine reservation system

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Lee County opened up its reservation system for the COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, and frustration doesn’t even begin to describe how so many people feel after they had trouble connecting.

Reservations were booked within minutes after the noon opening, with 5,000 shots available for an eligible population of 200,000 people who are at least 65.

The good news is that Lee County says more vaccines are on the way, possibly as soon as this week.

But Monday afternoon, once the reservation system opened up, the phones and inboxes at WINK News began to blow up.

MORE: COVID-19 vaccine schedules and information for SWFL

All of the messages were the same: People couldn’t get through to make an appointment. Some called the phone number dozens of times and got nothing but a busy signal. Others said they got hung up on.

You can watch a replay of the county’s press conference below or by clicking here.

Mary Ann Conlin was one of the thousands of anxious callers who picked up the phone Monday at noon on the dot to make an appointment. “As soon as it said 12, I started dialing.”

She heard a voice on the other end telling her she’d won a prize. “Then they said you’ve won a prize, press one again. And I thought, press one for what? I thought I must’ve got the wrong number.”

Conlin said she kept trying. Twenty calls later, “I get answered again. They ask me if I’m going to speak English, I press one and they say you’ve won a Walmart gift card.”

And again. “He said well, I need your name and address, and I said is this the reservation line? And he hung up on me.”

She called again, and again, and again.

“Thirty-five times … 35 to 40 on two phones … close to 100. I’m losing my voice.”

Like all of you who tried, but few got anywhere. The county announced shortly after 12:30 that all the appointments had been booked.

“What I’m really mad about is somebody is messing around with the health of seniors in my county. That’s what bothers me the most,” Conlin said.

The county said Monday afternoon that “initial analytics show that within the first 30 minutes of the phone line going live, there was an average of 50,000 calls per minute, with a peak call volume of 84,000 calls per minute.”

Those who managed to get through and were on hold or were told they’d receive a call back are still being processed for appointments, the county said.

When additional vaccine doses become available, the county will reopen its reservation call line.

Berny and Phyllis Aronson waited 45 minutes and had multiple phones ready for their chance, but they kept getting messages telling them to hang up and try again, or messages that said the number they dialed wasn’t a working number.

“Disappointed, angry, frustrated,” they said, nearly giving up after 35 minutes, but the Aronsons will do whatever it takes to hug their kids and grandkids, so they kept trying.

It was emotional and infuriating, especially when after 45 minutes of trying, they found out all the reservation spots were gone, but the positive couple found a way to laugh.

“You know, I’m going to be doing this in my sleep tonight,” Phyllis said.

Lee County Commissioner Brian Hamman said he understands that people are frustrated that they could not secure an appointment, but with a population of more than 200,000 people age 65 and older in Lee County, it is not a surprise that demand exceeded supply.

Dan Craig, CEO of Tidal Basin, the vendor providing the call center, said more than 100 employees were on hand to take reservations as the reservation system went live.

Anyone who requested a call back to finalize the reservations should be certain to answer the call or they will lose their place in the queue, Craig said.

The county says that anyone who shows up at the vaccination site without an appointment will be turned away.

So, what should you do once the reservation system is open again?

If you make it in the queue, you’ll hear a message reminding you to stay on the line. If you hang up, you’ll lose your place.

If you can’t hold, you’ll be prompted to leave a callback number – but you must answer that call is returned or you’ll lose your spot.

Hamman said it’ll get better.

“We had 5,000 appointments. We have more than 200,000 people who wanted those appointments. The math just doesn’t work. You can’t fit 200,000 people in 5,000 slots, and that’s what happened today. Here’s the good news: more vaccines are coming to Lee County,” the commissioner said.

Trust WINK News to let you know when more vaccines are available and the reservation system reopens.

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