Gov. Ned Lamont turned up at the former Pratt & Whitney airport Monday, pointing to a line of residents waiting to be vaccinated and applauding Connecticut’s progress in getting the shot out to the public.
“Connecticut is winning,” he said. “Tell a friend that you can register online, tell a friend that you can telephone in.”
But Lamont and his colleagues at Monday’s press conference weren’t as eager to discuss reports of problems seniors are experiencing when they try to schedule appointments.
People 75 and older are now eligible to receive the shot in Connecticut. But even though providers across the state have supplies, the state’s central phone line – where many seniors without computer access have turned to book an appointment – is only directing people to the drive-through site near Rentschler Field in East Hartford, which means some seniors are forced to drive long distances to get the vaccine.
Residents have reported a litany of other issues as well – from an overwhelmed phone system causing long wait times, to a call-back function in which no one calls back or people wait days for a response. And while the phone service offers multilingual support, the main portal for booking appointments online – the Vaccine Management Administration System (VAMS) – only offers forms and instructions in English. That means non-English speakers are being directed to the already busy phone system.
Deidre Gifford, the state’s acting public health commissioner, acknowledged the problems Monday after being pressed by reporters and said that on Friday, organizers had doubled the number of people staffing the phone line. More staff will be added this week, she said. The phone line is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Gifford said three more locations will be added to the phone service this week, but she did not say when they would be added or where the locations would be.
“We understand that there have been some challenges in the appointment making,” she said. “We hear it, and I want everyone to know that our team is on it. We’ve been on it pretty much 24-7.”
On Friday, town leaders in Vernon were setting up a special vaccine clinic to help immunize the elderly. But because so many seniors were having trouble booking an appointment, they took scheduling into their own hands, opening their own call center and reaching out to nearby congregate housing facilities and apartment complexes to book unfilled appointments.
Michael Purcaro, Vernon’s emergency management director, said his office was getting inundated with calls from distraught seniors who were having difficulty booking an appointment online or were unable to get through to the state’s vaccine phone line.
“We’re not waiting for the state to fix the problems,” Purcaro told the Connecticut Mirror last week. “It’s incredible to me that there isn’t a telephone system set up that works for the people in this age group.”
Lamont on Monday criticized the Vernon officials for talking to the media about the scheduling problems.
“You want to solve a problem, give me a call. If you want to score political points, just call another press conference,” he said. “I would tell that town manager: If you have a problem, if you want to solve a problem – give me a call.”
Connecticut has ranked high among other states when it comes to the number of vaccine doses administered. By Thursday of last week, nearly 260,000 doses had been given out.
But the majority of those doses were administered by CVS, Walgreens and other pharmacies at the state’s 211 nursing homes under a federal partnership, and by hospitals to their own staff under Phase 1A of the state’s vaccine rollout. People 75 and older only recently became eligible to receive the vaccine under Phase 1B.
Other issues have been reported. Last Wednesday, more than 300 teachers and school staff were vaccinated in Southbury after glitches in the system allowed them to sign up. There were reports of teachers in other towns jumping the line as well. Teachers and other “essential” workers are included in Phase 1B but aren’t supposed to be vaccinated until all of those 75 and older have had a chance to sign up. People 65 to 74 also have priority over essential workers. The 65 to 74 age group is expected to be able to sign up beginning in early February. The state said teachers and other essential workers won’t be able to enroll until late February or early March.
Despite the problems, Lamont on Monday praised the state’s efforts.
“The good news is that we can get people vaccinated. This site right here can vaccinate all the doses we get over the course of a week right now,” he said, referring to the East Hartford drive-through location. “This is the type of innovation and partnership that reminds you we’re ready. And this is how we’re beating the virus.”