Booking system strained, but Alberta starts vaccinating seniors in latest phase of COVID-19 response

The phone lines at Alberta Health Services are jammed, and the government website has crashed on the first day that all Albertans born in 1946 or earlier can book COVID-19 vaccinations.

The province said an additional 230,000 seniors age 75 and older were eligible for the vaccine when bookings opened up Wednesday morning. Seniors who are residents of public long-term care and designated supportive-living facilities have already received them.

Many people who called Health Link at 811 reported not being able to get through on the phone lines at all after they opened for booking at 8 a.m. Wednesday or being disconnected after making it part way through the booking process.  

Others reported similar experiences with the AHS online booking tool, with the site either being down entirely or crashing as they were mid-way through booking an appointment.

Frustration over booking system

James Roberts, 77, said the line was constantly busy as he spent the early morning trying to book an appointment by phone.

“All I can say is, it should have gone better. I mean, that’s their job is to keep the people informed and to make sure that everybody understands what’s happening and to really understand the segment of the population they are dealing with,” he said. 

“I mean, it’s 75 and older, and a lot of people are not able to process in the same way, you know, somebody 20 years younger might do. This is … they haven’t planned for this.” 

Angie Hung, who works in IT, said early Wednesday that she tried to help both of her eligible parents book appointments and had no success.

“There was one time I got in to about the first six questions, and then when I finally answered that last question, the website froze,” she said. 

WATCH | Calgarian describes frustration of trying to book vaccinations for seniors: 

Hung’s parents became eligible for vaccination this morning, but she’s had no luck getting through to book their appointments. 0:44

“So that was more uncertainty, because do I keep it open in case it does eventually reload? I’m not entirely sure. So I will keep on trying.” 

Hung said she’s not surprised about the website having issues and compared it to trying to score coveted tickets to a rock concert. 

Some people discovered ways to bypass parts of the overwhelmed website to register and they quickly started circulating on social media, including one post shared by Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, an urgent care doctor in Calgary who is a frequent health and medical contributor for the CBC.

Both Calgary and Edmonton police urged Albertans not to call 911 to try to book appointments. Around 11 a.m. local time, Edmonton police said they’d received close to 100 calls about bookings. 

More than 15,000 people booked by noon: AHS

Alberta Health Services (AHS) said Wednesday morning that it is experiencing “very high volumes” and urged users to try again soon if they were having trouble accessing the website.

Earlier in the week, AHS spokesperson James Wood said there would be additional staff to handle the anticipated flood of calls to Health Link, but said longer wait times would be expected. 

By noon MT Wednesday, AHS said on Twitter that more than 15,000 people have been booked for an appointment. 

AHS also said the first vaccine under the expanded plan was administered shortly after 11 a.m.

Carolyn Tomanik took her 75-year-old mother, Norma, to get her first shot on Wednesday.

She says it was a “fluke” to get through on the phone, but she is thrilled she got an appointment.

“Hopefully it will ease some of the tension,” said Tomanik. 

“You know, I realize that all the precautions still need to be taken … but she’s been holed up in her house for months and months, hardly ever coming out, so she is happy to have some degree of, hopefully, flexibility at some point.”

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshsaw had said Tuesday that appointments would be available seven days a week from 8:20 a.m. to 3:40 p.m. at 58 sites around the province, with the hours being extended as more doses of vaccine arrived.

No walk-ins will be allowed, Hinshaw said.

Family members are allowed to book appointments for seniors but should make sure they have photo ID or an Alberta health card.

Seniors who can’t find transportation to their appointments can call 211 for help.

Pharmacy appointments

Later in the day, Health Minister Tyler Shandro announced select pharmacies in Calgary, Edmonton and Red Deer would be offered starting the first week of March for those aged 75 and older. 

He said approximately 10 pharmacies will be offering shots and appointments can be made starting Wednesday. 

“We know that many pharmacies across the province are keen to jump in and assist in this program,” he said. 

“However, we must start small due to the limited vaccine qualities that were being provided by the federal government and the strict storage and handling requirements for the Pfizer vaccine.”

Margaret Wing, the CEO of the Alberta Pharmacists’ Association, said staff at participating pharmacies will contact clients that are eligible for the shots.

“Every pharmacy will have their own process for booking, scheduling, screening and administering the vaccine, and we encourage you to follow your pharmacist’s instructions on how to determine your appointment,” she said.

Officials urge patience

Shandro says he understands the frustration of those unable to get through the application process on Wednesday. 

“I am disappointed, but the fact is that it’s going to take time to reach everyone.” More resources have been added, he said, including more staff to answer phones and more servers to support the website.

Hinshaw urged people to be patient on Wednesday.

Dr. Noel Gibney, co-chair of the pandemic response committee of the Edmonton Zone medical staff association, said the website crashing was to be expected based on the experience of other jurisdictions. 

“In the early hours of the open time, the systems have often crashed and so I would basically ask people to give it some time,” he said. “I’m sure that later today it will be open.”

1,562 Albertans over age 70 have died of COVID-19

More than 8,200 Albertans over the age of 70 have contracted the virus, 1,562 of whom died. The age group is also much more likely to be hospitalized due to an infection. 

Alberta’s COVID-19 vaccination booking website was down on Wednesday morning, with this apology posted. Wednesday was the first day in the province that seniors aged 75 and older were eligible for the vaccine. (AHS)

Alberta reported 267 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, compared with 273 new cases reported the previous day. There were 4,516 active cases, down from 4,675 the previous day.

The province has administered 180,755 doses of COVID-19 vaccine as of Tuesday, with 73,718 Albertans fully immunized after receiving two doses.

The next phase of the vaccine rollout could start in April, depending on vaccine availability.

It will include anyone aged 50 to 74, anyone with underlying high-risk health conditions, First Nations and Métis people aged 35 or older, eligible caregivers, and residents and staff of congregate living settings.

Congregate living settings include correctional facilities, homeless shelters and group homes.

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