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Vaccine Reservation Systems Overwhelmed By Demand in Hillsborough, Pinellas

Online reservation systems set up by Hillsborough and Pinellas counties for seniors wanting the COVID-19 vaccine crashed within minutes of launching on Monday.

Phone lines also were backed up.

The Florida Department of Health in both counties announced on social media that they were aware of the situation.

Pinellas officials said they are working with the state office of Information Technology and Microsoft to fix the problem.

Hillsborough County plans to start distributing its initial 1,500 doses at four sites across the county on Wednesday.

Appointments are mandatory and there is no waiting list.

Pinellas County plans to start distributing doses to residents 65 and older on Tuesday, but its reservation website crashed as soon as it went live at noon.

To address the website issues, Pinellas health officials on Tuesday announced a temporary registration solution.

People aged 65 years or older can call (727) 824-6900 and select Option 4 or call (727) 824-6931. From there, an operator will ask for specific information including name, phone number and date of birth, then schedule a vaccine.

Those who registered online on Monday will have their appointments honored.

In Sarasota and Manatee counties, appointments for vaccines are being filled quickly. The Herald Tribune reports that 800 new spots in Sarasota were taken just 30 minutes after the county started accepting appointments on Sunday.

Additional appointments Manatee County made available Monday afternoon booked up within the hour.

The process was frustrating for many Tampa Bay region seniors and their families.

Jennifer Bigelow of Virginia and her sister tried calling Hillsborough County about 250 times Monday morning to reserve an appointment for their mom after attempts online failed.

She almost snagged her dad an appointment in Pinellas when that county's site launched at noon. She was entering his information on the booking page when the website crashed.

"You know our parents are precious to us, and they, like all seniors deserve to get the vaccine, but they also deserve an orderly process," Bigelow said.

“It's sad because I'm sure there's many other families who are going through this too and it just isn't necessary, and if they [government leaders] can't figure out people are desperate, they don't know what's going on.”

Bigelow's sister was finally able to book appointments for them in Hardee County about 90 minutes away.

Gloria St. Clair Brown said she and her husband also tried calling and refreshing web pages many times to sign themselves up, but the error messages and busy signals got to be too much.

“So, we just gave up,” she said. “We are 77 and 80 years old and have been consistently following the CDC protocols to avoid getting the virus.”

Others had more positive experiences. Tampa resident Sarah Couture was one of the thousands of people able to successfully get on the Hillsborough County site in the minutes after it launched.

Couture said she “cried tears of joy” when she told her parents she made them appointments, but she got anxious after her brother-in-law couldn’t get one for his mom and comments started flowing on social media about problems with the reservation system.

"I don't have a lot of confidence, and I don't think that will go away until they have both shots," Couture said, referring to the second dose her parents will need in about a month.

Couture followed up to say she successfully reserved an appointment for her mother-in-law that afternoon after some issues got resolved.

Counties in the region say they understand residents are eager to sign up and are working to make the process easier. But they have limited supplies and are asking residents to be patient.

Thousands of area seniors do have appointments as of today and others will get a chance as more vaccines arrive later this week or next.

There were similar frustrations in other parts of the state as appointment slots filled quickly:

LEE: All appointments were filled as of 1 p.m. Monday, according to the county Department of Health. New reservations will open as vaccines are received by the department.

BROWARD: The county opened up more appointments Sunday morning, but by midday the website had crashed. By Monday morning, the department announced it wouldn't be taking any more appointments for the time being.

MIAMI-DADE: Appointments were slated to open through Jackson Health System early this week. The county plans to contact homebound seniors living in county facilities to bring vaccines to them.

PALM BEACH: The county has not yet begun its vaccinations.

NASSAU: Appointment slots are full, according to the county’s website. That’s after officials there announced the local Health Department has a very limited supply of the Moderna vaccine.

CLAY: Clay County is not taking any more appointments until another shipment comes in.

LAKE: The county’s attempt to provide the vaccine on a first-come, first-served basis failed to fly last week due to a shortage of supply. Now, the local Health Department is taking a day-by-day approach. Administrator Aaron Kissler says his department has learned a lesson after offering the vaccine to seniors and health workers last week but only having enough for those with appointments. Kissler urges seniors to be patient because of the lack of availability.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.