New vaccine rollout went smoothly

Gov. Chris Sununu looks over a call-taker’s shoulder Friday as residents in Phase 1-B began to register for the COVID-19 vaccine. Shots for this new target group will begin as soon as this Tuesday, officials said.

Purr Whalley of Alton, who successfully completed the first step in signing up for a COVID-19 vaccine, has some simple advice for those who are still trying.

Do it online.

“I found the signup very easy, but I spoke with two 88-year-olds who tried calling and got nowhere,” said Whalley, whose late husband, Mike Whalley, was majority leader in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

“My suggestion, if anyone has an elderly friend or relative, is to call them and, using your own computer, have them answer the online questions (which are not too private) and get their applications in. The 211 number is too frustrating. My friends got right on the website.”

The first shots for the group in Phase 1-B will start Tuesday, as the state begins a massive expansion aimed at delivering vaccines to those at greater risk of hospitalization or death if they contract the virus.

“Based on preliminary sign-ups, we will be ready to hit the ground running and will vaccinate the hundreds of thousands of folks in Phase 1-B as quickly as the federal government delivers it,” Gov. Chris Sununu said.

With the state receiving about 17,000 doses a week from the federal government, it could be weeks or even months before many of those in Phase 1-B can be vaccinated.

“They should be scheduling out until March or possibly April with appointments,” said Dr. Beth Daly, director of the state’s infectious disease control bureau. “They should take the earliest they can.”

At 8 a.m. Friday, the state began accepting requests for vaccinations from the group of 300,000, which includes everyone 65 and older, younger people who are “medically vulnerable,” corrections staff and those living and working in residences for the developmentally disabled.

In the first hour, 70,000 requests were received. An hour later the total was 123,000, according to Perry Plummer, the retired emergency management director who is managing the vaccine rollout.

Gary Girolimon, an IT professional from Bedford, said he expected the website to crash Friday morning while he was trying to sign up, but he was impressed it handled the surge in traffic. He registered and received an email from the Vaccine Administration Management System of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Saturday morning. He has an appointment Feb. 9.

Half of group signed up

By 3 p.m., 147,000 — about half the Phase 1-B group — had finished the first step.

At 10 a.m., Jake Leon, Health and Human Services public information officer, pleaded with people on social media to stay off the 211 telephone line unless they needed to sign up for the vaccine.

“NH 211 is currently experiencing high call volume. If you have already registered for your COVID-19 vaccination appointment and have questions, please consider calling back at another time so those without online access can register for their vaccine,” Leon tweeted.

Gov. Chris Sununu advised that the quickest way to get into the system was through the website, but he said the helpline was plowing through the calls.

“Just be patient. We are not going to get you lost in the system where you are pressing buttons and talking to robots,” Sununu said earlier Friday. “We want you to talk to a person. We want you to feel comfortable with this process.”

Some said the phone line worked fine.

“There were 400 people answering the phones,” said Ryder Selmi, a small business owner. “It was under a 25-minute wait on 211, which was a much shorter wait time than I anticipated.”

Sununu said by noon the phone wait was down to five minutes.

Some left in limbo

Rick Newman of Nottingham said the experience made him feel left in limbo.

“I tried to register as a 62-year-old with two qualifying conditions. The site told me to call my doctor because they had to assist in my registration,” said Newman, a former Democratic member of the House.

“I called my doctor’s office which is connected to Concord Hospital, and they told me they had sent all their patient files to the state. I don’t know what that means, but the bottom line is I was unable to register yet. It looks like I’m looking perhaps in March when my age group alone qualifies for the vaccine.”

Few appointments were made Friday.

State officials said that everyone who went into the registration queue would receive an email in the next few days with instructions for scheduling their first shot.

“Some did get their confirmation emails already, but we wanted to give ourselves a generous target of three to five days we were confident we would easily meet,” Daly said.

About 12,000 of the vaccines the state receives each week will be given out at 13 sites, which include Southern New Hampshire University in Hooksett, the Steeplegate Mall in Concord and Nashua High School South.

Other sites are in Claremont, Exeter, Keene, Laconia, Lebanon, Littleton, Londonderry, Plymouth, Rochester and Tamworth.

The rest of the weekly doses will go to mobile vaccine sites, hospitals and outreach groups for those facing “health disparities” in access to care, such as minority residents in Nashua, Manchester and Concord.

But Plummer said those who have qualified can get the shot anywhere and might get it earlier if they are willing to travel.

“Some could drive from Colebrook down to Manchester if they want to,” Plummer said.

Signed up, now waiting

Health and Human Services Commissioner Lori Shibinette said New Hampshire was able to avoid the computer crashes and even longer holds on telephone lines that other states endured because the state was prepared.

“This has truly been a statewide, all-hands-on-deck effort. We applaud the efforts of so many, including the National Guard, 211 call-takers, health care providers, and the residents who registered for making today go as smoothly as it has,” she said.

Ralph Cataldo of Manchester liked how it started, but said now it’s all about the follow-through.

“The proof in the pudding will be in how long it takes to get vaccinated,” Cataldo said.

Sandra Bettencourt of Salem at first was ready to call her son, Deputy Insurance Commissioner D.J. Bettencourt, to complain.

“I went on around 8:02 and it didn’t work, I was about to give D.J. the devil and then boom, it all came up, poor kid,” she said.

“I hopped back on the vaccine site around 8:15 and had no trouble registering two 65-plus-year-olds for the vaccine. I was very impressed with the process!”

Tim Ashwell of Durham had the same experience.

“I think they were a little slow on the uptake. When I attempted to log on at 8 o’clock sharp, the site wasn’t available. I tried again and logged on at 8:10,” Ashwell said.

“I was pleased to see the system allowed me to request a joint appointment with my wife... The questions seemed to me clear, although they were quite specific about allergies and such and that might confuse or intimidate some users. They promise an email follow-up in 3 to 5 days, so we shall see, but so far, so good!”

Andy Shagoury of Claremont got a call from her doctor’s office Thursday to verify medical conditions that would make her eligible for a vaccine. On Friday, Shagoury got an email from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with a link to sign up for an appointment. Shagoury will get her first dose on Wednesday, she said.

“I did not think it would be this quick,” Shagoury said.

First-day fortune

One middle-aged man wondered if it went too well.

“I’m in my mid-50s, and although I have a few health conditions, I didn’t think I was seriously unhealthy enough for Phase 1-B,” said the man, who agreed to be identified but whose name the Union Leader is withholding. “I was waiting to be vaccinated in late May under Phase 2-B.”

“I got contacted by my doctor’s office this morning telling me they had reviewed my health records, and based on that review they had notified the state I was eligible for 1-B.”

“I’m shocked at how fast this happened. I’m questioning, is Phase 1-B really intended for people like me, or am I getting in front of others who need it before me? I have to trust the system, I guess.”

Union Leader reporter Josie Albertson-Grove contributed to this report.

Friday, March 05, 2021
Thursday, March 04, 2021