Eagle County’s first vaccination slots for ages 70+ fill in minutes

Many seniors disappointed about sign-up process question why county didn’t say it only had 530 doses available

Pam Boyd
Vail Daily
A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Promptly at 8 a.m. Monday, Judith Olson of Avon was on her computer, attempting to sign up for the COVID-19 vaccinations offered to residents age 70 and older through Eagle County.

Initially, she was encouraged when the online application took her to a list of time slots for vaccination appointments. She proceeded to a page where she could autofill her contact information and respond to some basic questions. Once that was done, Olson returned to the appointment page and was presented with a message that said all appointments were filled.

“How can that happen in the three or four seconds it took to answer those questions?” Olson asked.

She made a point of noting the time. It was 8:04 a.m.

By late morning Monday, Eagle County had issued a news release stating that this week’s scheduled clinics to administer a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine to Eagle County residents aged 70 and older were full. The county release stated that online registration filled in less than five minutes, and that the county phone system experienced an overwhelming volume of calls resulting in busy signals for many callers.

“We received a significant amount of interest in getting the vaccine. Our 530 slots were full before mid-morning. Obviously, this was very disappointing for residents who were hoping to receive the first dose of vaccine as soon as possible,” said Heath Harmon, Director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment. “We apologize for any frustrations our registration systems caused, and are working to improve them before our next clinics. We understand and empathize with those who were not able to schedule an appointment for this week.”

But many seniors disappointed about their sign-up efforts weren’t just frustrated, they also had questions — lots of them.

Vaccine shipment by the trickle

“We are getting a trickle of vaccine and what we are attempting to do is, as soon as the vaccine becomes available, we want to put it out into the community as soon as possible,” said Eagle County Communications Director Kris Widlak. “The more people who get the vaccine, the safer we all are.”

But while the county believes that’s the right strategy, it is a prescription for frustration. This week’s rollout was a vivid example.

Widlak noted there are roughly 4,000 county residents in the 70-plus age group who qualified for the initial public vaccination. But, as Harmon noted, there were only 530 doses to administer.

“We are happy and pleased that so many people want the vaccine,” Widlak said. “With the trickle of vaccine we have, we want to get it out the door as quickly as possible.”

That said, Monday’s sign-up rush was quicker than the county anticipated and technology issues didn’t help the situation.

Widlak noted the county has received a number of complaints from eligible residents about both the online and phone sign-up options.

“That is the logistical discussion we are having right now,” she said.

In general, she said people didn’t have a hard time navigating the online sign-up, but they were unhappy that it didn’t give a real-time indication of how many appointments were still available.

“People understood it and it wasn’t difficult, it was just frustrating,” she said. The county is now looking at ways to beef up its sign-up software.

Likewise, the county wants to expand its phone-in capacity.

“The county phone system was not equipped to handle the volume we had,” Widlak said. “We managed a bit of a workaround, but it took awhile.”

She said having a phone-in option for residents who don’t have online access or who are uncomfortable with computer use remains a priority and the county is looking for ways to expand its phone-in capacity for the next rounds of vaccination sign-up.

Vaccine priorities

When Monday’s vaccine slots filled up so quickly, some residents questioned whether the people who received appointments are the people who most need vaccination.

Robert Barnes, 72, of Basalt noted he is diagnosed with heart disease and high blood pressure and said he was very happy to learn that vaccinations would be available for older county residents starting Monday. When he checked on the county’s website to learn more, he learned that sign-ups would begin at 8 a.m. Monday.

“That made me very nervous since clearly there would be many more requests for shots than could be handled in a few hours,” said Barnes in an email to the Vail Daily.

He was one of the people who attempted to call the county number to schedule a vaccination only to repeatedly get a busy signal.

“At 9:10 a.m. I finally got through, but I only received a message saying that because of high volume I could not speak to anyone and that I could not even leave a voicemail message. Instead I was instructed to go to the website for more information. On the website there was no information about additional vaccination sites or dates,” Barnes reported.

While he was on the phone, he also was on his computer screen, attempting to make an appointment. Like Olson, Barnes initially saw several time slots were open, but by the time he submitted his data, the appointments were no longer available. He also noted that all the slots were filled by 8:05 a.m. and there was no information provided about future vaccination availability.

“Why was no one aware that there would be far more requests for vaccination made by residents than time slots made available?” he asked. “Why wasn’t a simple lottery for available vaccinations used instead of the absurd scrum for available vaccination time slots that residents were subjected to? Why weren’t residents told how many vaccinations shots were available versus the number of residents in Group 1B (seniors age 70-plus) so that they could be prepared to wait far beyond this week for a vaccination? Why weren’t additional dates for vaccination already listed in the website?”

County public health officials acknowledged the validity of Barnes’ questions while noting they don’t have the answers to some of them.

“We find out week to week, some times in the middle of the week, how much vaccine we are going to have,” Widlak said. That information then fuels the decisions about additional vaccination dates.

As for priorities within the 70-plus age group, Widlak noted that is a sticky situation.

“We have group we can define and help — age 70 and older. This is from the state guidelines,” Widlak said. She noted that according to Colorado statistics, 78% of the COVID-19 fatalities in the state have been people age 70 and older.

“There isn’t anyone on the 70-plus list who doesn’t need to be vaccinated right now,” offered Eagle County Emergency Management Director Birch Barron. “Clearly, not everyone who is 70-plus is at equally high risk. But everyone who is 70-plus is at high risk.”

Olson’s experience trying to sign up Monday left her wondering if only a few of the 530 vaccination doses were earmarked for seniors with the remainder reserved for other high priority groups. Barron responded by noting that the outreach to front-line medical personnel, EMS workers, medical professionals and other priority groups happened prior to opening vaccination to seniors.

“There shouldn’t anyone in the general public just wondering if they are part of a priority group right now,” Barron said. “Clearly there are more people in the public who want the vaccine than there is vaccine supply.”

The county’s Monday release noted that while the vaccine is still in very short supply, additional clinics will be scheduled as soon as more is received.

Pitkin County officials last week made a request to the state for 1,800 doses. As of Monday, they had received 200 from the state on their recent request.

Harmon said Eagle County as well does not know “the amount and timing of additional shipments. We are allocated doses on a week-by-week basis, and will work to get those out to the community as soon as possible.”

Right now the pool of people from the general public who are qualified to sign up for vaccines is in the thousands while the number of doses is in the hundreds. So, right now, many of the eligible residents will have to wait and try again next week and longer.

“What else can you do?” Olson said. She hopes that in the future, the county shares more information about how many vaccination doses will be available so seniors will have a better idea of their chances of nabbing a time slot.

“I like that they are doing it by appointment. I just want to make sure I have all the information,” Olson said.

Widlak noted that for the initial round of public vaccinations, the county didn’t communicate that only 530 doses were available. She said that in the future, if people are aware of how limited the supply of vaccine is, they may have more accurate expectations regarding whether they will get an appointment.

After a rough start this week, Widlak said the county remains committed to a robust vaccination effort and will continue to work on a better scheduling system.

“We are going to keep trying,” Widlak said. “We are going to keep advocating for our community to get as much vaccine as we possibly can.”

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