Duval health department asks for patience as phone lines slammed for vaccine appointments

Health officials hope to have online appointment booking available soon

VIDEO: News4Jax was flooded with phone calls as frustrated viewers reported they could not get through to make a COVID-19 vaccine appointment in Jacksonville.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – News4Jax was flooded with phone calls Wednesday morning as frustrated viewers reported they could not get through to make a COVID-19 vaccine appointment in Jacksonville.

Anyone 65 years old and above and any health care worker who has not yet received the COVID-19 vaccine can receive their first dose of the vaccine starting Monday in Jacksonville, according to the Florida Department of Health in Duval County.

Dr. Pauline Rolle, the medical executive director of the FDOH-Duval, told The Morning Show on Wednesday that vaccines in the county are open to anyone, not just Duval County residents, although she is encouraging everyone to get vaccinated in their own county.

“This vaccine is not limited by boundaries. It’s provided by the federal government. We’re providing it for free and so with that, even if you’re not a Duval resident, you could still be vaccinated through us, but please keep in mind other counties will be rolling out their vaccination efforts, so we encourage people to get vaccinated in their own counties but certainly, we will service anyone from any county,” Rolle said.

But appointments are required and must be made by phone. There is currently no online system to make an appointment in Duval County, although one is in the works and officials hope to have it available soon.

“We’re still trying to work out all those kinks,” said Heather Huffman, interim director of the Duval County health department. “The worst thing we can do is put it out there, people book an appointment and somehow it gets lost. We definitely don’t want that. We’re doing the test on that now and we’re hoping we can get that out in the next day or two.”

The phone line was slammed Wednesday morning as soon as it opened, with many getting messages that their call could not be completed or a fast busy signal.

Some callers got the health department’s outgoing message, then got a fast busy signal or the call abruptly ended. Officials urged patience and to keep trying:

“If you are 65+ and trying to call for an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine, the Duval County Health Department says that the phone lines are working and please keep calling 253-1140,” the city wrote on its Facebook page. “We are receiving a high volume of calls, so callers may not get through right away. We ask that callers bear with us as we try to get to every individual. Every appointment matters to us.”

For more information on the vaccine, visit the DOH website here: http://duval.floridahealth.gov/alerts.html

COVID-19 vaccine information and update: If you are 65+ and trying to call for an appointment for the COVID-19...

Posted by City of Jacksonville, Florida - Government on Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Health officials explained that the phone line issue is apparently statewide and is not just affecting Duval County.

“We’re working with the phone vendor to see if we can get additional capacity. There’s a million people. It’s a high demand right now,” Huffman said. “The demand is way greater than the number of appointments we can put out. We’re still working with the feds, working on those logistics with the supply chain.”

Beverly and Claude Powell said they called the hotline more than 40 times this morning with no luck so they drove to the Prime Osborn Convention Center -- even though walk-ins aren’t allowed.

“We’re just trying to find out if we can register,” Claude said. “We keep calling and we can’t get through,” Beverly added.

Bonnie Gunston said she spent hours on the phone, trying to book an appointment. Roughly 1,500 calls were made from her phone, but she never got through.

“I started exactly at 8 o’clock this morning and didn’t stop until 5 this afternoon. It was nonstop,” said Gunston, who told News4Jax she and her husband are both diabetics. “You would get a variety of things on that phone line -- between either a constant busy or ‘this line is not in service’ or ‘hit 1 for the COVID-19 appointment line’ -- and then it would go dead.”

A health care worker, who wished to remain anonymous, said she was able to book an appointment after calling 950 times over a span of two hours.

“I made a plan ahead of time,” she said. “I had two cellphones and my business phone set up on my computer and I actually started calling a couple minutes before 8 a.m. and just systematically kept rolling through each phone.”

When it came to how fast she could make the appointment:

“The call itself probably lasted about one minute,” she said. “Set the appointment up and that was it.”

The health care worker says she has direct contact with potential COVID-19 patients on a daily basis.

“Within our organization, we’ve had a couple people die secondary with complications with COVID. And I have an older family member that lives in my home, and to have the opportunity to have the vaccination for myself and eventually for him is important, and I know it will help protect us,” she said.

Patients who meet either of the criteria to get a vaccine can call for an appointment, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each weekday other than New Year’s Eve and Day. Call 904-253-1140 for an appointment.

RELATED: COVID-19 vaccine in Northeast Florida: What we know by county

The vaccines will be given at the Prime Osborn Convention Center, and 500 appointment slots are available on Monday. The department hopes to scale up to 1,000 appointments a day over time. The vaccines are free of charge and a second dose will be needed for it to be as effective as possible.

“We’re trying to get everybody vaccinated. We want people to still keep getting excited about it and coming in wanting to get it. But we have to do it in an efficient, timely manner,” Huffman said.

Before making an appointment, know that:

  • All individuals are required to wear a face mask at all times and practice social distancing during the appointment.
  • There are no restrooms available for use during the appointment.

When you call to make an appointment, you’ll have to provide your name, phone number and date of birth. Rolle said if you’re on medication, consult your physician before getting the vaccine.

For those who get an appointment, a consent form is available on the Duval Health Department’s website to print and fill out before you arrive. The department is just hoping to streamline the process a bit, but if you don’t have a printer, that’s OK, you can fill out a form when you show up for your appointment.

DOCUMENT: Consent form for COVID-19 vaccine

The health department says patients don’t need to fill out the insurance information on the form, because the vaccine is free. They ask everyone to focus on the screen questions.

Rolle said the department is hopeful that requiring appointments will limit wait times for those getting the vaccine shots.

Jacksonville firefighters, who began getting the vaccine last Thursday, will help give out the shots. Walk-ins will NOT be allowed.

On Monday, there will be seven lanes set up for people to come in at their appointment time and get the vaccine. Then they have to wait 15 minutes to make sure there are no adverse reactions. Health care workers will be there to monitor those people.

City employees age 65 and up are being included in the current round of vaccines being given to health care workers at the Prime Osborn, the mayor announced Tuesday.

“This will allow these critical employees to continue to provide integral public services to the people of Jacksonville,” Mayor Lenny Curry said in a Tweet.

Curry explained that the city was also including members of independent agencies, like JEA, JTA, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority and JaxPort, in the vaccine program.

“This limited public employee group (65 & up) will help DOH ensure the efficiency of their process so that as soon as all Jax seniors are invited, the lines move as safely and quickly as possible,” Curry said.

RELATED: Clay County begins taking appointments for vaccinations | St. Johns County to announce plan soon

Front-line workers at local hospitals first began receiving their shots two weeks ago at UF Health Jacksonville, followed by other medical centers. CVS and Walgreen’s are currently working with the state to vaccinate staff and residents at long-term care facilities.

Health officials hope to have online appointment booking available soon

About the Authors:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.

Reports weekdays and anchors The Morning Show on Saturdays and Sundays