British Columbia says the roll-out of its immunization of some 50,000 seniors this week was marred by technical glitches, and that the company operating its booking hotlines did not provide enough staff to meet the demand from tens of thousands of people wanting appointments.
On Monday morning, the province’s five health authorities opened their call centres to book Indigenous people 65 and older and those aged 90 and up for their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. But the system was immediately swamped by the volume of calls. The worst performance was in the Vancouver area, where only 369 residents managed to book an appointment on the first day.
On Tuesday, Premier John Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix said that because Telus Communications Inc., which had contracts with the five health authorities, supplied an inadequate number of call-centre staff, some people called hundreds of times and got a busy signal.
In Alberta and Washington State, online booking systems crashed last month in a similar crush.
B.C.’s top health officials said they knew this week would be challenging, but that Monday’s problems were because four of the five health authorities across the province relied solely on call centres inadequately staffed by the contractor. The 156 Telus workers were almost immediately overwhelmed when phone lines opened at 7 a.m., and the public health authorities began training their own staff to jump in.
When The Globe and Mail asked the provinces and territories last month about their public booking systems, fewer than half had an online option.
Quebec, the Northwest Territories, Prince Edward Island, Yukon and Alberta had online systems operating. Nova Scotia, Ontario, and B.C. said theirs would launch this month.
Scott Lear, a health sciences professor at Simon Fraser University, said public health agencies must provide many ways for people to connect in the coming months when vaccinations begin opening up to younger, much larger age groups.
He said governments could mail out a card and ask people to come and get vaccinated on given dates: “Just like what we do with voter registration.”
Dr. Lear said the bright side of B.C.’s first day is it shows enthusiasm for vaccination has won out over hesitancy. But, he noted, if the problems are not fixed immediately, some people may give up.
“And that ... would be a very concerning outcome,” Dr. Lear said.
Mr. Dix told reporters on Tuesday that Telus “let us down” by not providing enough staff.
Vancouver Coastal Health registered so few people, he said, because it lacked its own call centre to use when the Telus system was overwhelmed. Fraser Health repurposed an online tool developed last summer for testing appointments, and registered 8,722 people on Monday, he said.
Darren Entwistle, president and chief executive officer of the Vancouver-based telecom giant, issued a statement on Tuesday afternoon apologizing for the understaffing and technical issues. By the end of Tuesday, he pledged to have 550 Telus agents working the lines, and the capacity to add hundreds more.
Penny Ballem, the head of B.C.’s immunization campaign and chair of Vancouver Coastal Health, said in an interview on Tuesday that the phone lines hours will be extended to 9 p.m. this week, and all eligible seniors will get their appointments. Dr. Ballem said B.C. had planned to book the initial cohort by phone, and would have had no problems had Telus staffing been adequate.
She said VCH didn’t have its own call centre for the pandemic because testing in the region was done on a drop-in basis at clinics.
Dr. Ballem promised an online option would be available on April 12, when younger groups begin registering. The province aims to have a first dose available to all its 4.3-million eligible adults by the end of July.
Alberta Health Services says it has added more servers to increase the processing power of its online booking tool as it opens up vaccination to younger cohorts beginning next week. Unlike B.C. and Ontario, Alberta has a single health authority that has centralized its response to the pandemic, allowing it to scale up its operation faster than other provinces.
Still, the government’s first day of signing up some of the province’s 230,000 seniors to get vaccinated last month went much the same way as B.C.’s: Thousands of Albertans were unable to get past the busy signal on the booking hotline or got kicked off the website before they could get through.
By the afternoon of the first day, the province said more than 150,000 people had tried to access the website and, ultimately, 25,000 booked an appointment.
Alberta Health spokesperson James Wood said via e-mail that Alberta can now book about 100,000 appointments over a 24-hour period, and people can also contact their local pharmacy to set up a time. AHS has added more staff to its 811 hotline, Mr. Wood said.
Ontario will launch its online portal for booking at mass immunization clinics on March 15, a spokesperson for the province’s Ministry of Health said.
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