Monday, August 8, 2022

With New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender public health swamped with vaccine calls, online portals could ease the strain

Busy signals and overstrained call centers can be commonplace when so many people seek the Covid-19 vaccine. With even more people becoming eligible on the horizon, New Hanover County hopes to expand its options. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of New Hanover County)

SOUTHEASTERN NC — Facing vast enthusiasm among senior residents eager to receive their Covid-19 vaccine, the tri-county region is experiencing high call volume at their public health centers every week for appointments. Some counties are looking toward utilizing an online portal system to help streamline the process.

New Hanover County Public Health has activated emergency protocols and brought in staff from other county departments to help run the Covid-19 call center. Up to 30 people man phone lines and field questions from the public, while scheduling vaccine appointments. 

“All [county employees] are expected to work during emergencies,” New Hanover County’s Health and Human Services Director Donna Fayko said. “They are very much aware and on board that they are able to help. We need them at vaccination sites and our call center.”

Appointments are scheduled on a rolling basis as soon as vaccine shipments arrive. Last week, nearly 1,000 appointments were booked in a matter of hours. Vaccinations have been administered at the Senior Resource Center and the health and human services building on Greenfield and 16th streets. Last week Wilmington Health secured approval to administer the vaccine.

“The online option is a plan,” said David Howard, assistant health director. 

County leaders are hoping to incorporate an online registration system into the vaccination efforts, which could ease the strain on personnel resources required by the call center. Howard said initially it didn’t make sense to open with an online-only platform for vaccine appointments.

“We can’t assume everyone has access to that,” he said.

Many of the county’s senior residents might prefer to talk on the phone rather than interact in an online portal as well. 

“There’s quite a bit of planning that has to go into considering every aspect and option, and every impact of every decision we make,” Howard said. 

When the county acquired the vaccine in late December, the first groups of residents eligible to receive shots — frontline medical workers and individuals 75 and older — were on the smaller side of the vaccination plan’s group phases. That has increased now since Gov. Roy Cooper added people between the ages of 65 and 74 to the list.

Once this group is completed, the plan’s next phases are broader. A wide array of essential workers are coming up shortly in the queue. 

Read More: New Hanover County to follow state’s updated vaccination plan, first must fulfill current appointments

With more people soon to be in line, maximizing connections between public health staff and county residents is top of mind, said Fayko. 

“We are working to develop an electronic system where people can go online and schedule themselves,” she said. “That’s not fully developed at this time. We also know that the federal program, the [Covid-19 Vaccine Management System], is working to develop that aspect and it has not been developed yet.”

New Hanover Regional Medical Center Physician’s Group primary care centers also are administering the vaccine to established patients who make an appointment through the group’s MyChart portal.

Howard stressed the fact that it’s crucial for New Hanover’s vaccine appointments to be accessible to all residents, and more options can help.

“The greater the demand, the greater the number of persons we have eligible for the vaccine, the greater number of opportunities people need to access the vaccine,” he said.

Brunswick County Public Health announced in a press release Friday that it will begin using Novant Health’s portal system. With a third of the county’s population falling in the 65-years-or-older crowd, its call center has been jammed and booked all appointments through Jan. 22. Moving forward, public health is asking residents to sign up for an account at Novant’s MyChart portal to schedule their series of shots instead of calling public health.

“Recipients do not need to be affiliated with a specific healthcare system to sign up for MyChart or to receive a vaccination,” the press release noted. “Due to limited vaccine availability, vaccinations will be by appointment only and at a centralized location in Brunswick County.”

For individuals without internet access, Brunswick County officials suggest calling public health (910-253-2339) and leaving their name, phone number, birth date, and an email. Someone from Novant Health will return the call and help individuals set up a MyChart account.

In Pender County, the Covid-19 hotline is staffed with around 10 employees. Call-ins have been manageable recently, according to health director Carolyn Moser, but the looming expansion of the eligibility list will require upgrades to infrastructure. Moser hopes to add a call center like New Hanover’s to Pender County’s arsenal when it comes to the vaccine.

RELATED: Pender County dealing with Covid-19 case data backlog as vaccine demand outpaces supply [Free]

“As we move to the next group, we’re looking at quite a few people,” Moser said. “When you start talking about school staff, and teachers, and child care providers, and some other essential workers that are 50 or older, it’s going to be really important to get that call center up and going.” 

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