‘Very frustrating’: Callers inundate Meck County’s COVID-19 vaccine appointment hotline

CHARLOTTE — Mecklenburg County is just a day away from vaccinating a new group of people. Vaccinations for those 75 and older will begin Wednesday, but hundreds of people started signing up on Tuesday -- crashing the registration hotline.

Currently, the health department is providing COVID-19 vaccinations for people in the Phase 1A priority group at the Bojangles Coliseum.

[READ: Mecklenburg County’s vaccine information page]

Health Director Gibbie Harris said that the coliseum on East Independence Boulevard offers a larger space, which will allow officials to schedule more appointments.

The parking lot will also give them the opportunity to offer drive-thru clinics.

“Hopefully, that’s going to allow us to expand the number of people that we can bring through every day,” Harris said.

The first people to be vaccinated Monday were those in the state’s 1A phase, which includes health care workers who have contact with patients, and long-term care staff and residents.

On Wednesday, the county will be moving into Phase 1B. Adults 75 years or older will be eligible for the vaccine regardless of their health status or living situation.

They were able to make reservations online starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday for vaccines that will start on Wednesday.

After that group, health care and frontline essential workers 50 years and older can sign up. That includes firefighters, police officers, grocery store employees and people who work in education, like teachers and child care workers.

Group three includes health care workers and frontline essential workers regardless of age.

Harris said she is hopeful this will get the county to Phase 4 by April, which is the phase where anyone is able to get vaccinated if they want to.

[ALSO READ: Mecklenburg County COVID vaccine distribution prioritization framework for health care workers in Phase 1A and Phase 1B]

Officials said getting the vaccine is by appointment only, so those wanting a shot can’t just show up. The county set up a hotline to register for the vaccine. The public can also register online.

Channel 9 spoke with several people Tuesday morning who said they could not get through online or on the phone to make an appointment.

Ned Arnold and his wife are both in their 80s and they tried to get appointments early Tuesday morning but nothing was available.

“When you click on the link it doesn’t do anything. And the phone doesn’t have anything but a quick busy signal. I’m 85 almost 86. If I get this thing I’m dead. I’ve got a bad heart and other problems too so it’s very very frustrating when they say this and say that and it doesn’t work,” Arnold said.

The county acknowledged Tuesday morning that they were having problems with the phone line and website but said right before noon that they had opened up more time slots in January. Once those are filled, they will let people know when more might be available.

Harris held a news conference Tuesday afternoon where she said it took only half an hour to fill up all of the available appointments through Jan. 16. By around 5 p.m., all the slots through Jan. 30 for those ages 75 and older had been filled.

Dr. Meg Sullivan with the Health Department said a critical limitation is that the county is only getting about 2,000 vaccines a week from the state and they could use a lot more.

“We only have limited vaccine supply, and again, we are working really hard to get all eligible individuals vaccinated as quickly as possible, but we are currently limited by the number of vaccines we can provide due to supply,” she said.

In the meantime, those ages 75 and older are encouraged to reach out to their primary care providers to discuss options for receiving the vaccine. Both Atrium Health and Novant Health will be offering vaccines to patients in this phase.

Resident Jerry Deal was finally able to get a vaccine appointment scheduled three weeks from now.

“I’m ready for it to be over for everyone. And I’d like to see everyone be able to get the vaccine and put it behind them,” Deal said.

According to the county, officials received just over 2,900 vaccines and as of Monday they had given 1,776 of them.

Health officials will offer vaccines six days a week from 8 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. so they anticipate hundreds, if not thousands, of people who will move through the building each day.

Channel 9 reporter Mark Becker reported seeing a steady stream of people arriving Monday to get vaccinated.

Those getting a vaccine at the coliseum started by checking in at the checkpoint manned by National Guard troops and by filling out a questionnaire. Also, since everyone has an appointment, there was very little waiting once they arrived.

Our Channel 9 crew said everyone we spoke with on Monday said they were in some way involved in health care.

“I’ll be a little relieved, but I’m gonna be a little nervous,” George Morgan, who counsels people on getting the vaccine, said. “But, you know maybe me doing this and me taking the shot will help out some other people.”

“I’m thrilled,” said Lori Dove. “I’m very excited to get it done.”

Dove is a dental hygienist who’s been looking forward to this day for a while. She was one of many health care workers who came in for their first round of vaccines on Monday.

Wanda Goforth works at a facility for recovering addicts.

“The confidence of being around our residents and being around our staff, I feel that it’s real important (to get vaccinated),” she said.

Channel 9 checked, and the county said Goforth, and others who received shots on Monday, all qualify as frontline, essential workers.

There were no lines and no waiting on Monday, a good early run before the county moves into the next, bigger phase of vaccinations later this week.

Still, some people -- even those who were at the Coliseum on Monday -- are a little skeptical.

“It feels like there hasn’t been enough time to see what the symptoms are following the vaccination,” said health care worker Apu Seyenkulo.

Seyenkulo has had COVID-19 twice already, and she’s still skeptical about the vaccine, but said it’s what she needs to do.

“Because I am a health care worker it’s important for me to keep my patients safe, and my friends and loved ones safe, so it’s important that I’m doing everything I can to keep them safe,” she said.

Full statement from Mecklenburg County Public Health on phone issues:

As anticipated, Public Health is experiencing a high volume of calls to the appointment hotline and traffic to the website this morning. We are excited and encouraged by the interest and response from our residents 75+ to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

We just opened additional appointments, available through the end of January. Once these appointment times are full, scheduling will be temporarily suspended. We will notify the public as more vaccine and appointments become available. The appointment scheduling process will be the same.

As a reminder, individuals 75+ can also reach out to their primary health care provider regarding the COVID-19 vaccine.

Again, we appreciate your patience and continued support as we as we enter into Phase 1b and are scheduling vaccination appointments for our residents ages 75+.