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British Columbia's top doctor Bonnie Henry, in Victoria on Jan. 22, 2021.CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia’s Health Minister and its top doctor are promising improvements to new regional vaccination booking systems that seniors and their families immediately overwhelmed when phone lines opened this week.

Within three hours of call centres opening at 7 a.m. Monday, more than 1.7 million calls had been received – many from people getting a busy signal then redialling hundreds of times hoping to get their loved ones booked for a dose of the vaccine.

Health Minister Adrian Dix told reporters at Monday afternoon’s pandemic update that 10,000 appointments had been booked so far for a cohort of roughly 54,000 eligible seniors – a cohort split evenly between First Nations people aged 65 years or older, and others aged 90 and up.

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He said that more staff will be added to call centres this week and the province will continue to educate the public to wait and not call if they or their family members do not meet this week’s age criteria.

“We know that we will do better and that is my expectation in the coming days,” Mr. Dix said. “I understand and our call-centre provider has to understand that we have to do better at responding as well, and we will need to because the demand is not going to get less. It is going to grow until our general immunization is full on in Phase 3 starting on April 12.”

Mr. Dix said, earlier in the day at an unrelated news conference, that Telus had been contracted to help with this unprecedented immunization push.

Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer, said Monday afternoon that “the call-centre provider that has been charged with working on this needs to step up as well, as well as the health authorities, and it will get better.”

Mr. Dix said a significant number of Monday’s bookings were through Fraser Health, which was the only one of the province’s five local health authorities to have an online option available. Mr. Dix said the health authority created its own system last summer as part of its push to get more people in the Metro Vancouver region tested for the virus.

Dr. Henry said the province tried and failed to launch its own online system for these bookings.

“It was not possible. Obviously we wanted it to be ready weeks ago, but it does take time to get those things together,” she told reporters.

She said an online option will be available to the wider population by mid-April, when the next phase of younger cohorts booking vaccinations begins.

Liz Sauvé, a spokesperson with Telus, said in an e-mailed statement that the telecom is partnering with the province to train call-centre representatives and scale up operations as quickly as possible. She did not say how many Telus employees have been contracted for this work.

Julie Tapley, whose 90-year-old father lives in the Vancouver Coastal Health authority’s jurisdiction, said she got a busy signal every time she dialled the hotline between 7:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Ms. 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 that 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.”

Health authorities announced dozens of sites Sunday where residents will go to receive their vaccine, with Mr. Dix saying some of these 180 sites across the province are now open.

Chris Cumming estimates he called roughly 400 times on behalf of his parents, who are in their 80s but are eligible to register now because they live in Whistler, a community where the age for booking is a bit lower than in other parts of the province.

“It’s unbelievable to me that in 2021 where there’s no online booking,” he said. “They’ve had months and months and months to plan for this, and how they can have it. Unbelievably unprepared.”

Mr. Cumming said as well as an online booking system, he hoped the government could offer queueing or callback systems.

He said the government did not use resources wisely. “It’s literally like trying to buy concert tickets in 1986.”

Reid Holmes, a software systems expert who teaches at the University of B.C., said managing these bookings will only get harder over time as the number of those eligible for a jab grows and the more vaccines get distributed more quickly.

“This is especially true if people will continue to be able to book specific time slots (rather than for instance a time range in a day that will be managed with a physical queue on site),” he wrote in an e-mail. “To be successful, whatever technological solution that is being developed should be well under way, should be comprehensively tested under the load it is expected to be exposed to, and expectations for users should be clearly set from the outset (or even before the system is even launched).”

Dr. Henry said once the province rolls out its online booking system next month the hope is that B.C. can eventually repurpose and reuse it for other post-pandemic initiatives.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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