Seniors overload Hamilton’s COVID vaccine phone line for third day

·5 min read

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine would be like a “boulder has been taken off my back,” says Dundas senior Edward Northey.

“When you think of our age and you take a whole year out of our lives,” he said. “I know there is nothing you can do about it, but it’s tough on older people.”

Hamilton resident Natasha Charles and her sister-in-law tried the city’s overloaded phone line almost 500 times over three days to register their moms for vaccination.

Ancaster’s Sheila Burman describes never letting her cellphone out of her sight so she doesn’t miss the call from St. Joseph’s Healthcare offering her one of the coveted 250 appointments a day at the West 5th campus that have been slotted for seniors age 85 and over. Mobile clinics rotating around the city are expecting to add another 200 appointments a day by Wednesday.

“I’d love to hear from them,” said 87-year-old Burman. “I gave them my cellphone so now wherever I go this is tagging along with me around the house.”

It is estimated Hamilton has 11,000 seniors aged 85 and older and their demand for the vaccine has overwhelmed the city’s registration line three days straight since it opened Saturday.

“I do want to apologize for the widespread frustration and dissatisfaction with our COVID-19 hotline,” Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton’s medical officer of health, said at a city briefing Monday. “We do appreciate just how much people want to ensure both they themselves and their loved ones are registered and I’m very sorry for the angst this has been causing.”

Charles started calling Saturday to register her 88-year-old mom and 94-year-old mother-in-law, who both receive home care. She says it took until Monday afternoon — an estimated 480 calls between her and her sister-in-law.

“I literally had my phone in my hand all day long,” said the 66-year-old, who called up to 30 times an hour in what she described as “a very frustrating experience.”

Both moms are on the wait list for long-term care and have limited mobility. It’s important they get their vaccines as soon as possible because they have multiple personal support workers who provide in-home care, so it would protect both the workers and her moms, Charles said.

Though Charles was relieved to have gotten through, she worried for seniors who didn’t have people to help them navigate the process.

“There are many seniors who don’t have advocates for them,” she said. “That’s my frustration with the system.”

The city would have had to completely overhaul its phone system to meet the kind of volume that has been coming in over the last three days, says Paul Johnson, director of the city’s Emergency Operations Centre.

“We’re not a call centre,” he said. “I know the frustration is there and it’s not a great scenario. The other option was to simply wait until the province’s system comes online and we just weren’t prepared to do that either.”

Ontario’s booking system won’t be ready until March 15 with vaccinations for those 80 and over expected to start the third week in March.

“Even though it’s clunky and it’s a little frustrating for individuals, it’s still faster now doing this than waiting until March 15,” said Mayor Fred Eisenberger. “If we had vaccine and we weren’t prepared to get it into the arms of individuals as soon as possible then we’d be in a very untenable position quite frankly.”

The phone line can handle up to 150 calls at once with 11 operators. As of Monday, they’d registered 1,000 seniors.

Northey just missed the cut off at age 83. Waiting those extra weeks to become eligible is hard for the Dundas resident who lives alone and only has close contact with one friend. He was with that friend in Florida when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians to come home almost one year ago, so they packed up and have barely gone out since.

“My neighbours are great, they pick up stuff at the supermarket for me,” he says. “I don’t go out anywhere because of my age and the fact that I’m asthmatic puts me in fairly vulnerable situation. I’m pretty anxious.”

He misses his two sons and two grandsons who only have occasional outdoor distanced visits.

They are “out and about and I don’t see them because they don’t want to be the one that transfers COVID to me and I can understand that,” he says.

The snowbird has found the Canadian winter “depressing” and dreams of travelling again.

Burman thinks of the freedom getting the vaccine would bring.

“I would love to just wander around the store again and feel comfortable doing that,” said Burman, who uses curbside pickup.

“I have been on quite a few things on Zoom but I really miss personally seeing my friends,” she said. “We play bridge online. I would love to be able to sit inside with masks on and play together and just see them ... It is lonely.”

She’s glad she’s had her dog for company but longs to spend time with her three children and six grandchildren. It’s why she called the registration line around 30 times over the weekend. She was already on the list because she’s visited a site connected to Hamilton Health Sciences or St. Joseph’s in the last six months — but she wanted to be sure they didn’t miss her.

“I feel very relieved,” she said. “I was worried (about getting COVID) because I kept on thinking, ‘What would I do here by myself.’”

To register for a vaccine, eligible age groups can call 905-974-9848, and select option 7.

Joanna Frketich, The Hamilton Spectator / Maria Iqbal, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator