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Walton COVID vaccine: Phone systems crash as coronavirus vaccination line opens

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Phone lines at the Florida Department of Health in Walton County crashed Monday as the local health department began taking a significant volume of calls from people 65 years of age and older wanting to set up appointments for coronavirus vaccinations.

The 65-and-over cohort is the latest priority in Florida for the vaccine, under terms of a recent executive order from Gov. Ron DeSantis. The governor's executive order departed from federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, which put essential workers such as emergency responders and people working in agriculture ahead of the elderly.  

More:Fort Walton Beach Medical Center and Twin Cities Hospital receive COVID-19 vaccines

CVS Health pharmacists load a syringe with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine  at the Sivercrest Health and Rehabilitation Center in Crestview.This was one of the first administrations of the vaccine in the state.

In Florida, front-line health care workers began receiving the vaccine last month, and residents and staff of long-term care facilities are slated to get the vaccine administered at their facilities through the Walgreens and CVS pharmacies. 

More:Okaloosa COVID vaccine: More appointments announced for older residents in Okaloosa

The Florida Department of Health in Walton County announced late last week it would begin offering vaccinations to members of the general population aged 65 or older on Wednesday.

Shortly after the local health department's coronavirus vaccination phone line crashed, the department developed a workaround through the county government, using what is usually a citizen information line — normally activated during hurricanes and other emergencies — to take calls from people 65 years of age and older wanting to set up coronavirus vaccine appointments.

More:Walton County set to start coronavirus immunization for older population

That line subsequently began to malfunction, as callers could hear the health department personnel and other county staff members answering the phones, but the health department personnel and other county staffers couldn't hear the callers.

"It has completely 'weirded out' our phone system here," Louis Svehla, the county's public information manager, said in a telephone interview late Monday morning.

Svehla couldn't say specifically whether call volume or some other issue led to the problems at the health department and subsequently at the county government.

Tina Snodgrass, director of inpatient units at Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast in Miramar Beach, was among the first people in Walton County to receive the coronavirus vaccine. As the county moved Monday to begin offering the vaccine to people 65 year of age and older, the telephone appointment system was beset with problems.

The county's phone and digital fiber service contractor was working the problem Monday morning, Svehla said.

More:No masks in Walton County, commissioners reject mask resolution with unanimous vote

"Every now and then, a call will come through," Svehla said, adding that the compound issues with phone connections for people seeking the COVID-19 vaccination was "not something we were expecting."  

In the meantime, the county continued to work around the problem, according to Jeff Goldberg, director of Walton County Emergency Management, which oversees the citizen information line.

According to Goldberg, callers, who could hear personnel answering the citizen information line, were being instructed to send an email requesting an appointment.

Additionally, Goldberg said, people calling regular county desk numbers were able to leave messages requesting a COVID-19 vaccination appointment. As of early Monday afternoon, according to Goldberg, somewhere between 60 and 80 vaccination appointments had been scheduled.

As Monday morning stretched into Monday afternoon, the county was developing a further workaround, according to Goldberg. At that point, county personnel were developing an online appointment scheduling option that was set to appear on both the county government website, https://www.co.walton.fl.us/, and on Walton County Emergency Management's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/WaltonCountyEM/.

The Emergency Management workaround online at https://tinyurl.com/y3uoq4xd, was available for use before 1 p.m. Monday. At about the same time, the home page of the county's website, https://www.co.walton.fl.us/, included a link to the online scheduling at https://bit.ly/2LfEpoC. People using the workaround are asked to provide their name, phone number and email address and are told that a local health department staff member will be back in touch with them.

According to Goldberg, the governor's decision to depart from CDC guidelines in setting priorities for vaccine distribution contributed to the county's communications problems on Monday. And Walton County wasn't alone in experiencing issues with the changed priorities. According to media reports, phone lines were jammed and there were website issues in Pinellas County, and visitors to the website in Hillsborough County got a message that the website wasn't available.

In Walton County, current plans call for those ages 65 years and older to be vaccinated, by appointment, at the health department's Coastal Branch clinic at 361 Greenway Trail in Santa Rosa Beach from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays from Jan. 6 through Jan. 15. As of Monday afternoon, in addition to the appointment workarounds, the county was listing 850-892-8392 as the number to call for a vaccination appointment.

There is no charge for vaccine administration.