100,000 Alberta seniors book COVID-19 vaccination as AHS says website 'stabilized'
Provincial booking system overwhelmed after opening to those 75 and older
More than 100,000 newly eligible Alberta seniors had scheduled COVID-19 vaccinations by early Thursday afternoon and several thousand had received their first doses, according to the province, with many saying they looked forward to being able to safely visit family and friends someday soon.
Meanwhile, Alberta Health Services promised it had fixed the issues that caused its system to crash repeatedly the previous day while tens of thousands tried for hours to book vaccinations — while at least one expert said it never needed to happen.
The province said earlier in the week that about 230,000 Albertans would be newly eligible when the system opened at 8 a.m. Wednesday to all those born in 1946 or earlier.
Seniors who are residents of public long-term care and designated supportive-living facilities had already received the vaccine.
With 100,000 appointments already booked, that means more than 40 per cent of those newly eligible had booked their shots by calling 811 or through the online booking tool by 2 p.m. on Thursday — less than 30 hours after the system opened up to them.
Allan Pasutto, 86, of Penhold was among the 2,000 or so seniors who had received their first dose by the end of day Wednesday.
"I'm very fortunate to be Canadian," Pasutto told AHS staff as he received his first dose of the vaccine in Red Deer.
"I'm looking forward to my retirement and enjoying life. I'm very happy to be alive."
As more seniors received the vaccine on Thursday, AHS staff shared quotes and photos from behind the scenes.
Arlene Jones, who was getting her first shot in Rocky Mountain House, said she can't wait to be with family again, especially since she has a new grandchild coming soon.
"I haven't seen my nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren since September," she said.
Richard Wright, 75, who received his first dose in Grande Prairie on Wednesday, said he was excited to finally get it.
"I'm hoping to be able to safely visit friends and family this summer."
Elizabeth Findlay, 75, who got her first dose in Lethbridge, said she thinks it's important.
"It's good for myself and it's good for everyone I know."
Barry McCaughey, 76, who got his first dose Wednesday, said he has spent most of the past year hibernating but looks forward to hopefully camping one day soon.
For Setsuko Kikuchi, 92, getting the COVID-19 vaccine means hope that she can see her family again soon. “It’s hard for the family because they want to come visit me,” Kikuchi says. She received the <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/covidvaccine?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#covidvaccine</a> in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/YEG?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#YEG</a> as part of the rollout for Albertans aged 75+. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/shotofhope?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#shotofhope</a> <a href="https://t.co/iQ6sBTYxMi">pic.twitter.com/iQ6sBTYxMi</a>—@AHS_media
AHS says online booking tool fixed, phone line improved
On Wednesday, many people who called Health Link at 811 reported not being able to get through on the lines at all, or being disconnected — often repeatedly — after making it part way through the booking process, while the AHS website repeatedly went down or booted people out mid-registration as they tried for hours to book an appointment.
By noon Wednesday, a trio of Edmonton brothers had figured out the problem on the website and posted a solution on Twitter to help others sidestep the now-fixed glitch.
By evening, the website had started to show a message letting people know how many were ahead of them in line and how long the wait would be. At about 7 p.m., users were being told they faced waits of an hour or more with about 10,000 people ahead of them in the queue.
By end of day, Alberta Health Services said 43,000 people had managed to book but many others had not.
On Thursday, AHS promised it had fixed its online system.
"The online booking tool has stabilized since launch on Wednesday morning. We very much appreciate everyone's patience, and we understand the frustration," AHS tweeted.
AHS also said improvements were made to its 811 phone line to give callers a choice to route their calls to book a COVID-19 immunization appointment or reach a registered nurse for medical concerns.
As of about 10 a.m. Thursday, the bookings for the first dose of the vaccine were being scheduled for the second week of March and some people reported waiting no more than 10 to 15 minutes before being able to book online.
Still, AHS urged patience, saying it continued to anticipate a wait time to get through on the online booking tool or Health Link in the days ahead.
The province also pointed out eligible Albertans can book a COVID-19 immunization through some local pharmacies listed online by Alberta Blue Cross.
Some Albertans frustrated by additional issues
Though many ran into issues with online booking tools, other Albertans said technical glitches weren't the only headaches along the way.
Janet Wees finally got through to book a COVID-19 vaccine online, but discovered the only available appointment was in Canmore — posing a problem, as Wees is from Calgary.
"It's confusing, and I don't think it's because we're seniors," Wees said. "I think anybody of any age would be frustrated and confused."
And while some felt panicked to accept an appointment located far away not knowing if they would miss out, others were frustrated they couldn't register as spouses.
Stephanie Pollock's mother-in-law secured a vaccine appointment. However, the 81-year-old was turned away at the appointment and told she needed a doctor's note to get the vaccine because of medicine she takes that suppresses her immune system.
"To have that lack of clarity and lack of readiness to handle some of these things is what frustrated me," she said.
AHS said in some areas, travel may be required to get the shot, and that it is still working through some additional issues.
Vaccine booking system was preventible, expert says
Tom Keenan, an adjunct professor of computer science at the University of Calgary, told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday that the province could have easily and inexpensively prevented the website from becoming overwhelmed by installing queue management software.
He said Denmark-based Queue-it — which sells systems to cope with website traffic congestion by directing visitors to a queue where they can wait until bottlenecks clear — could have provided AHS with a solution for $30,000 to $100,000.
And it would have taken about 20 minutes to install the fix, Keenan said.
Keenan said that after making a few inquiries with Queue-it regarding how AHS could have used its services, a company official seemed to confirm the province had now contracted with the firm.
"An hour ago, I got an email from the co-founder of Queue-it in Denmark and — breaking news, breaking news — she said, 'this is/will be a Queue-it customer,'" he said Thursday morning.
With files from Helen Pike