As anticipated, demand for COVID-19 vaccination appointments for Albertans 75 and older was extremely high when bookings opened Wednesday morning.
Alberta Health Services opened its phone lines and online vaccination booking tool for community seniors born in 1946 or earlier at 8 a.m. Within minutes, Albertans began reporting issues with the site crashing or not loading, and a busy signal when calling 811 to book appointments.
Gary Mason, who lives in Okotoks, was born in 1946 and just met the threshold for this round of vaccine eligibility. He went online first thing Wednesday to try to book his appointment.
“I book it and the little wheel spins around and around and all
of a sudden a message comes up: ‘Sorry, can’t connect to the server,'” Mason said.
He tried a second and third time, but said those attempts were also unsuccessful.
“It didn’t work though, it just kicked me back out again,” he said. “I figure it was too many people or too much stuff going on for us to get into it.”
Mason tried calling 811 with both his cellphone and home phone, but said that didn’t work either.
“That didn’t work, of course. They just rang busy as soon as I got through. So it is what it is, right?”
Mason said he’s not too worried but will keep trying to set up an appointment.
“I’m not panicked. I’ll get the vaccine whenever. I just thought, ‘Ah well, I’ll see if we can get in on the first day.’ I figured it would be hit and miss.”
Penny Kowalchuk and her sister both started trying right at 8 a.m. to book a vaccination appointment for their 76-year-old father. They used the online tool and called 811.
“The closest we got with the online system was at about 8:30 she was able to get the form filled out but then it just said there were no appointments available in our area,” Kowalchuk said.
“When you get to a certain point it says call 811 Health Link. Then if you try to call Health Link — if you can get through after several tries — it tells you to go online.
“It’s a little bit crazy. I don’t know how anyone is getting through.”
Kowalchuk said it’s frustrating and unnerving to have issues with the system after trying for nearly a year to keep their dad safe.
“It’s just disappointing. I would have hoped that they would have used their time that they had waiting for more vaccine to come to beef up the system so that they could handle the calls and online traffic as well,” she said.
“I think the fear is the worst part of it because you’re afraid that you’re going to slip up some way and accidentally bring it into the house if you have to go out of the house for groceries or something. So we’ve stayed inside as much as possible but it is just fear-inducing.
“It’s frustrating when you can’t get through and get this vaccine done.”
In a statement on Twitter, AHS said it was “experiencing very high volumes with the AHS COVID-19 immunization booking tool.”
AHS went on to say that the tool remains live. Those having trouble accessing the site are asked to keep trying.
A statement from AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson issued just before 8:30 a.m. went on to say that several hundred appointments were successfully booked already.
“Traffic is very high on (the) network that leads into the booking system. We urge everyone to be patient,” Williamson said.
By 9:14 a.m., AHS said 4,000 Albertans had successfully booked their appointment. By noon, that number hit 15,000. About 21,000 Albertans 75 or older had booked an appointment by 1 p.m. Then, on Thursday, AHS tweeted to say over 72,000 Albertans 75 and over had made appointments to be immunized.
“We anticipate Alberta having enough appointments for all seniors age 75 and older early in April,” AHS said on Twitter. “Please be patient as we anticipate high demand for appointments over the next several days. Extra staff is on hand at 811 to manage the added call volumes.”
AHS and local police urged people not to call 911, hospitals or clinics directly to book appointments.
Health Minister Tyler Shandro said he understands the frustrations, and the following steps were taken to help with the demand:
- Additional network capacity was added to the 10 servers already in place
- Additional staff added to Health Link — 170 phone lines are available to help Albertans make appointments
- The government is working with Telus to make sure the intermittent busy signal that some Telus subscribers dealt with is no longer a problem
“When it comes to responding to the pandemic, money is not an issue, resources are not an issue for AHS,” Shandro said.
Shandro stressed that the province checked in with AHS a few weeks ago to ensure they were ready.
“They advised us that they were,” the health minister said. “So we’re disappointed like all Albertans.
“What I’d like to make sure is that AHS — knowing that money is not an issue — that we want to provide them with any resources that they need, that they come to us and making sure that they are deploying those resources in a way that ensures there are not going to be delays.”
Shandro said moving forward, the system should be able to handle about 5,000 bookings per hour. He said despite the issues with the booking system, vaccines were administered Wednesday afternoon.
“The shots are happening. The delays in getting through to the booking system will not slow down the actual vaccinations. They are going ahead as planned.”
He added the high demand is “a good problem to have.”
“I think this is showing that our province and Albertans are incredibly interested in getting our vaccines. This is a great indication that we’re going to have good uptake in vaccines.”
The province has said there are about 230,000 Albertans in this age group. When asked why the age group wasn’t broken up into smaller groups, Shandro said the province would have had to ask people to wait.
“We didn’t do that. AHS has, for many weeks, been able to bolster the infrastructure, the staffing capacity at 811 to be able to help with this, as well as the infrastructure included for the telephone system and online,” Shandro said.
He also acknowledged that all of the vaccines aren’t coming at once.
“We’re going to be receiving about 50,000 to 55,000 Pfizer vaccines per week,” the health minister said. “This will be appointments that we will be needing to make over the next five weeks. Obviously everybody wants them right away.
“We’re committed to making sure that we have these appointments in place so that when we do receive these further shipments — the better, predictable and stable shipments of Pfizer vaccines — that we will have that infrastructure to not only be able to make the appointments but also get the vaccines in people’s arms.”
Alberta’s chief medical officer of health also took to Twitter to reassure Albertans.
“Our health-care teams are working very hard to make sure that every eligible senior gets immunized as soon as possible. Everyone who is eligible will get their chance,” Dr. Deena Hinshaw tweeted.
“Thank you for being patient as we work to immunize Albertans as safely and quickly as possible.”
On Tuesday, AHS said testing of the site had occurred and it was confident the site was designed to meet the needs of all Albertans that will be booking a COVID-19 vaccine.
Also Tuesday, Global News spoke with a couple of doctors who were worried there would be issues with the rollout.
“There’s no question, in some instances, if the online portal isn’t well designed and able to cope with the large number of inquiries, there is a risk it could crash,” said Dr. Noel Gibney, co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s pandemic response committee.
On Wednesday, Gibney said while he’s disappointed the online portal and Health Link have been overwhelmed, he’s not surprised.
“This has occurred in many places where an online portal has been used. It seems that AHS did not anticipate the level of interest,” Gibney told Global News.
“I would advise everyone to ease up clicking the link and try later tonight. This seems to have worked in other jurisdictions with overwhelmed portals.”
Gibney worries about the implications for the next phase of vaccine rollout, for those 65 and older, as that group has much greater numbers.
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“Either significantly more capacity will be needed in the I.T. systems or the age groups will need to be broken into smaller groups — or both.”
Seniors 75 and over who wish to be vaccinated will be directed to vaccination clinics closest to where they live. Those with mobility or transportation challenges can call 211 for information on help finding a ride to an appointment.
Vaccination appointments can be booked online or by calling 811.
More than 100 pharmacies to offer COVID-19 vaccine
Starting Wednesday, about 100 pharmacies in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer will begin to book appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine for Albertans 75 and older. Appointments will be available starting on March 8.
“This is a step that just makes sense,” Shandro said. “Pharmacists have a lot of experience in delivering vaccines.”
These three cities were chosen as a first step due to the strict handling and storage requirements, as well as supply of the current vaccines that are available. As more vaccines arrive, Shandro said more pharmacies will offer COVID-19 vaccines.
“We are ready and we are able to keep expanding our approach,” Shandro said, adding that the province is working with the Alberta Medical Association to continue to expand its rollout so that community physicians can also offer the COVID-19 vaccine. Large, flow-through immunization clinics are also being planned for the future as supply and demand warrants.
As of Feb. 22, 180,755 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been administered in Alberta. As of the same date, 73,718 Albertans had been fully immunized with two doses of vaccine.