City urges 'patience' as Hamilton's COVID-19 vaccine hotline struggles with high call volume

A number of Hamiltonians looking to book COVID-19 vaccines endured busy signals and disconnected calls when a number of new groups became eligible for a shot on Monday morning.

“I’ve tried at least 200 times in the last hour,” and “4 hours later and 200+ calls, I am finally on hold at least,” were just some comments left on a social media post from the city asking residents to be patient while operators fielded calls off the booking hotline.

The city’s emergency operations director (EOC) said he was not surprised by the difficulty, saying that the city’s existing call centre is simply not up to the task of handling high volumes of calls in general.

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“I just want to let folks know that municipalities and public health units were never designed or structured to handle huge a hotline and call center volumes, ” Paul Johnson said in an update on Monday afternoon.

“There just isn’t one in the province that can handle tens of thousands of calls coming in at any one time. We’ve done our best to put a lot of staff onto this.”

The EOC boss said finding staff and limits of existing technology with the city’s call centre are the hotline’s primary shortfalls.

The deluge of calls came as adults 18 and older living in 114 designated hot spot postal codes across the province were able to book their shots as of 8 a.m. Monday.

A pledge to bump up distribution of new vaccines to areas with particularly high case counts over the next few weeks and the omission of three qualifying Hamilton postal codes on its online booking portal spurred on the rush of calls.

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Despite being fully staffed, once the queue is full the system simply drops calls, according to the city.

“The volume on day one, whenever that day one is, an overwhelming volume,” said Johnson.

“It does get better as the days go on.”

Hamilton’s director of public health Michelle Baird told Global News that eligible candidates shouldn’t worry about being left out saying ample appointments will cover off the thousands who are qualified for bookings.

“We know that community members overall are feeling anxious and fatigued and people are worried about the pandemic and eager to book a vaccine, so we’re just asking that you be kind, be respectful and be patient. The hotline is open all week,” Baird said.

Both Baird and Johnson pleaded with callers not to “take it out” on operators when they get through.

“They’re there doing their very best and we continue to try and make the best of the system as we can” said Johnson.

“Hopefully more and more people will be eligible to use the provincial online booking tool, which is really the best way to to do this.”

On Monday, Hamilton’s medical officer of health said a number new schedules and expanding eligibility bands will be announced by the province soon.

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Dr. Elizabeth Richardson said the expansions are expected to be “sort of broad” and will be revealed in the coming weeks as the city continues the process of tackling an estimated 300,000 Hamiltonians.

The expansions are expected to increase demand for bookings, to which Richardson urged those who can book appointments online to prioritize that route.

“You can get all the information on our website as well as from the provincial website around eligibility, and really reserving that hotline for those who can only book that way or those who don’t have any sort of computer computer access,” Richardson said.

Adults who live in the L9C and L8W postal codes in Hamilton can book an appointment using Ontario’s online portal, while those living in L8L, L8N and L9K can only use the city’s hotline.

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People over 50, individuals with high-risk health conditions or those who can’t work from home will be allowed to book jabs on May 6.

As of Monday, over 11 million vaccine shots had been given out in Canada. Ontario has administered just over five million of them.

Over 196,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in Hamilton with the bulk of the shots — about 70,000 — coming from the Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) clinic.

About 36 per cent of the city’s eligible population over 18 has received at least one dose.

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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