PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — In order to help those without reliable internet access navigate the COVID-19 vaccination process, the Portsmouth Health Department is looking to launch a hotline to help answer questions and schedule vaccination appointments.
District Health Director, Dr. Lauren James, told City Council Tuesday she hopes the service can be up and running sometime next week. The current city phone system and her staff can’t handle the volume.
Portsmouth became the last municipality in Virginia to “officially” move into phase “1b” of vaccinations on Tuesday. Currently, frontline workers, seniors (ages 65-plus) and people 16 to 64 years old with high-risk medical conditions will be inoculated by appointment only, according to James. She estimates roughly 20,000 people in the city would meet that description.
Under the state’s new allocation format however, the city will only receive roughly 1,200 doses each week.
The log-jam is already quite evident.
“We have had over 2,000 calls this week,” James said of people trying to make appointments. “Anyone who left a voicemail or email, we are working on contacting.”
James said her team, along with help from Portsmouth EMS employees successfully inoculated 400 people Tuesday at their mass vaccination site — the Sportsplex off Portsmouth Boulevard.
Half of the people vaccinated were considered essential frontline workers. The rest met the age or medical requirement.
“We plan to do this three times a week,” James said.
Council members Bill Moody and Mark Whitaker said people need to more clearly know what to expect.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions and they are being posed to me and quite frankly I don’t know the answers,” Moody said.
Moody explained he tried calling the health department’s phone number multiple times Tuesday, but never was able to reach anyone.
“And the voicemail was full,” Moody said.
Moody said the telephone option is vital for seniors and those who don’t easily have access to a computer.
James said the city’s phone system is being overrun and that there is currently a fix in the works.
“Social services is working closely with us, to set up a hotline with actual people that when our citizens call they can schedule directly and ask additional questions,” James said.
She said one of the largest hurdles is staffing.
“Half my staff is doing vaccines and the other half contact tracing,” James said. “I can’t take them off to answer calls.”
Interim City Manager LeVoris Pace offered to reach out to the Portsmouth Community Health Center for help to support the vaccination effort on a volunteer basis. He also pledged to help with the overall communication process.
“The public needs to know more information relative to where they need to go to get vaccine. The who, what, when and wheres and we will use all our resources to help [James] communicate that so the public is kept abreast of what is going on,” Pace said.
Notably, James wanted to remind people that if you are considered phase “1a” or “1b” because of your job, you should wait to be scheduled through your employer
Everyone else, must request an appointment and to do that the city is pushing people to complete the online survey at this link. Emails can also be sent to email@example.com to request an appointment until the new hotline is announced.