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Seniors face frustrations as COVID vaccine call centre crashes in first days

Over one million people tried to call the first day vaccine phone lines opened in B.C.; only about 50,000 were eligible
COVID vaccine
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Pat Turner was up early and on the phone Monday shortly after 7 a.m. ready to book her COVID-19 vaccination.

But Turner, 91, quickly found the experience sliding into one of extreme frustration as she was unable to get through on the dedicated Vancouver Coastal Health call centre line.

Turner said she tried to get through on the phone line for most of the day. “I put it on redial,” she said. “I was excited when I got a busy signal.”

Most of the time she didn’t even get that, only a recorded message saying all lines were busy. At 7 p.m. she gave up.

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Turner, a North Vancouver senior, said she understands there were problems with the call centre’s ability to deal with the volume of calls received. “I guess they didn’t have the technology,” she said.

On Tuesday, her daughter took over phone-in duties while Turner went to her regular activities at the Parkgate Community Centre. “I don’t know if they have improved things today,” she said.

Turner wasn’t alone in her frustration. Phone lines opened Monday morning for people over 90 or family members who were helping them to book their vaccine appointments.

Only 369 appointments booked Monday in Vancouver Coastal Health

According to Health Minister Adrian Dix, about 15,000 people were able to book appointments across the province on Monday, but only 369 of those were in Vancouver Coastal Health after the phone system crashed early.

Part of the problem was the volume of calls.

Dix said Monday there were about 27,000 people over 90 eligible to make appointments this week, along with about 27,000 Indigenous people over 65. But call centres were flooded with 1.4 million calls in the first 90 minutes, according to the government.

On Tuesday, Dix blamed Telus, which provided the call centre, calling the performance “unacceptable.”

Telus apologized in a statement on Tuesday, promising to “make things right.”

Michael La Brooy, another North Vancouver senior, said he doesn’t think it’s been made “crystal clear” to people what they are supposed to do.

Confusion over who is eligible to call

“I understand that we shouldn’t all be calling,” said La Brooy, 85.

But he said some seniors have been under the impression they could call at any time.

According to Vancouver Coastal Health, there are approximately 3,500 seniors age 90 and over living on the North Shore, including Lions Bay and Bowen Island. That figure also includes seniors living in nursing homes, who received their vaccines earlier.

La Brooy said he plans to call next week when he’s eligible to make an appointment, but doesn’t have high hopes for the system working seamlessly by then.

“New things suddenly introduced from the government often do not work very well,” he said.

Vaccination clinic locations announced for North Van, West Van

For those lucky enough to get an appointment, Vancouver Coastal Health has announced the locations of vaccination clinics for seniors on the North Shore. Vaccines will be offered in the gym at the West Vancouver Community Centre and at the COVID-19 testing site on Lloyd Avenue in North Vancouver, formerly an ICBC inspection centre. Days and hours that shots will be administered vary by community.

Currently, only those 90 and older or Indigenous people 65 and older are eligible to call to book their shot on the North Shore. Starting next week, March 15, those 85 and older can call. The number to phone is 1-877-587-5767.

Only one health authority, Fraser Health, offered seniors the ability to book vaccine appointments online.

West Vancouver senior Barrie Chapman, 82, said the way the vaccine booking system has rolled out in the early days hasn't made seniors in their 80s optimistic about what will happen when it's their turn to book. "I don't want to sit on the phone for three hours waiting for something to happen," he said, adding when it's his turn he may not even try to call until later in that week.

Chapman also questioned why only one health authority currently has the capacity to book appointments online.

"Isn't this a provincial thing?" he asked. "Don't they talk to each other?"

Dix said by the time mass vaccination clinics begin in April, that online system will be available in all health authorities.