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"Monumental undertaking" of vaccinating seniors begins

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Staff Writer | February 2, 2021 1:09 AM

Monday, the first day Idahoans 65 and older could receive the COVID-19 vaccine, ended with booked-out reservations and frustrated seniors hoping to reserve a place in a very precious line.

“Please know that we are working diligently to get the COVID-19 vaccine out to people as quickly as we can in the midst of the challenges we have with very limited vaccine supply,” said Katherine Hoyer, public information officer for Panhandle Health. ”Again, we ask for your patience as we work through this monumental undertaking as quickly as possible.”

The local health district is coordinating with providers to help facilitate vaccinations, but both providers and health districts quickly became inundated with requests on the first day seniors were eligible for the vaccine. Hoyer said the roughly 12,000 calls the health district received on Monday alone was unprecedented.

“To put that into context,” Hoyer explained Monday, “a high volume would be 5,000 to 9,000 in a week. We received 3,000 calls in under an hour this morning.”

Panhandle Health had established a hotline for scheduling requests — 877-415-5225 — but the sheer number of calls received Monday morning, combined with direct calls to Panhandle Health’s normal line, clogged the system from the get-go. Sporadic technical issues at the front desk were dwarfed by nearly-three hour wait times. On one occasion, The Coeur d’Alene Press was informed by the health district’s automated system of a 176-minute wait time, while another call in the afternoon pinpointed the wait time at 144 minutes. (That second call eventually connected, however, at 102 minutes.)

Those roughly-12,000 calls were fielded by 12 staff members in a morning shift and 12 in an afternoon shift.

“This morning we had some technical difficulties that we were able to work out,” Hoyer said. “It’s important to note that our regular phone line and the call center are on separate systems. Our regular phone lines were receiving an extraordinary amount of calls, as well as the call center. The regular phone line could not handle the volume and did end up going down for a short time. The call center system was receiving a very high call volume as well that resulted in long wait times.”

The district’s largest provider, Kootenai Health, opened its online portal at 9 a.m. on Friday to begin accepting vaccination reservations for the week ahead. By 9:45 a.m. — 45 minutes later — every available time slot was booked.

“It is encouraging to see how many people want to receive the vaccine,” Andrea Nagel, communications coordinator for the hospital, told The Press. “Kootenai Health is excited to assist Panhandle Health District in accelerating vaccination opportunities in the community.”

When asked why Kootenai Health only books out one week in advance, Nagel said the issue facing the hospital is the one facing all of Idaho and providers around the country — an unsure supply facing off against unprecedented demand.

“Because we receive our vaccine supply weekly, we wait to open appointments until we know what our supply will be like for the upcoming week,” she said.

Kootenai Health will administer between 1,000 and 1,500 vaccine doses per week, Nagel said, and that those looking to get vaccinated through the hospital next week should visit Kootenai Health’s website — kh.org/covid-19/vaccine — every Wednesday at 4 p.m. starting tomorrow. Those who are unable to secure a spot should continue checking the website, she said, as some will likely cancel or end up as a no-show.

Hoyer said that approximately 51,000 North Idahoans are 65 or older, making them newly eligible for a vaccine that hasn’t arrived in nearly that quantity. Provided no further supply disruptions occur, the simple math says vaccinating the elderly population alone will take months.

And keep in mind: Seniors are the latest round of residents to qualify for vaccinations, but they are by no means the first. Front-line health care workers, long-term care facility residents and staff, home health care providers, certain inpatient and outpatient clinic staff, EMTs and other first responders, dental workers, pharmacists, school nurses, educators and school staff were already on the list. Some have not yet received their dose of the vaccine.

“Our area will receive around 3,800 doses each week,” Hoyer said, “and those are allocated to each county based on population. Please recognize, all providers are having the same challenges with extremely limited vaccine supply. We anticipate it will take around 10 to 12 weeks to get the vaccine to everyone in the 65-and-older group at this rate. However, we are hopeful that the vaccine supply will increase in the coming weeks. While we understand so many are very eager to receive the vaccine, we must ask for your patience.”

Nagel urged for patience as the vaccine rollout continues, as well, saying the supply won’t satisfy the demand at this time,

“We know there are many people in our community who are eager to register for the vaccine,” she said. “With limited supplies, it will take time to register everyone. Please know we are doing everything we can with the resources available.”