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As call center frustration mounts, health director mulls waiting list

The frustration at the Covid-19 vaccination rollout is so great that Henderson County's director of public health is considering instituting a waiting list for people seeking a shot appointment.


Appearing before the Board of Commissioners Wednesday morning during a budget retreat, Steve Smith said he's becoming convinced that the current setup is not working.

"I think you're aware that we had another pretty significant glitch with the call center this morning but I do think we have that remedied and I surmise by this time that we have all those next 700 appointments scheduled," he said.

Earlier Wednesday, the health department notified the news media that "at least one" call center line "was inadvertently set to funnel messages to a voicemail" and that some calls on hold were being dropped after 30 minutes.

Smith brought up the wait list when Commissioner Rebecca McCall asked whether the commissioners could provide resources or do anything "that would help with the call center."

"I'm not sure that this is our future," he said. "I really want to propose, at least we need to consider that perhaps there's a different way of doing this. I had some really personal conversations with people that are very very frustrated. And what they don't like is being thrown into the maul and competing for very limited appointments in this scramble, no matter how robust the call center. They're already stressed and that just adds more to their predicament. And so an option for us to think about — and we're ready to pivot very quickly, depending on your feedback — is opening up a wait list so that we could open up the call center five days a week. I could let you enroll on line or through a phone call and I think we let you get in a virtual line.

"Every angry person that I talked to said (when asked), Would you like going the way we are or would you like the option just to get in line? ... said 'If I just knew I was in line I would be better off.' I tested those responses. 'You know we have over 30,000 people in Henderson County that are 65 or older. How will you feel if you're told you're No. 7,000 on the list or 12,000?' And they said, 'It's better than what I have today. I still know I'm in line. I will be frustrated if that takes a long time to get to me.' But they acknowledge a recognition that our progress is limited to our vaccination supply.

"I think one of our frustrations as vaccine providers is we do not get any reliable forecasts about what's going to happen two weeks from now or a month from now. It is literally waiting on a week to week basis about what we might be allocated."

As for expanding the pool of eligible people from the 75 age group to 65-plus, "I didn't really perceive it as a choice," he said. "In my opinion the state and the federal decision actually put that group inside the priority group we were already vaccinating. Folks alluded to Buncombe County delaying but they're open to 65-plus now, too."

Commissioner Daniel Andreotta said the health director "on the front lines" ought to have the authority to institute a waiting list if that would improve the process. "If you see what needs be done and serve the public, as far as I'm concerned, do it," he said.

Responding to Commissioner McCall's question about getting teachers vaccinated —a priority of hers —Smith said they'll have to wait until the demand from group 2 subsides.

"I'll make you an offer," McCall said. "If Dr. Bryant will take kids back to school on Feb. 1 then I'll come help you with the call center."

"I will tell you, I think Dr. Bryant and the Board of Public Education are actively pursuing a strategic direction similar to that," Smith said.

One of the logistical challenges is the requirement to observe a person who received the shot for 15 to 20 minutes. That requires a large amount of space. The obligation to give second doses is another upcoming challenge, raising the need for inoculations from 400 to 800 shots a day.

Testing increased dramatically over the holidays.

"We got hit with around 44,000 pre-Thanksgiving and by post-New Years Day we had done over 75,000 but it's still not enough," Smith said. "We could probably test everyone in this county once a week and they would still want more but we just have to pivot to vaccination because it's the only way forward."

He said he takes responsibility for the process and is willing to talk to those who encounter problems.

"I know you're fielding calls from unhappy residents. They have a right to be. I understand their concerns and stress," he said. "If it not happening the way it should, that's on me. That buck stops with me. I may not make them happy but I'm more than willing to have a conversation about where we are and how we hope we can improve."