CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A mad rush of people at least 70 years old and older who can now officially get in line for a COVID-19 vaccine created backups, broken websites and made it nearly impossible to reach a vaccination hotline for information.
Gov. Henry McMaster announced on Monday that Wednesday would become the first day people in that age group could make an appointment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Michael John Neff in Goose Creek spent the better part of Wednesday calling the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s vaccination Care Line only to be met with an automated message saying the call cannot be completed as dialed.
He then tried the DHEC website that lists which facilities are currently scheduling appointments. As of Wednesday, only the Medical University of South Carolina is offering the vaccine.
“I don’t understand why MUSC is the only one that has the vaccine,” Neff said. “I went to the site for MUSC and it said the earliest appointment was March 9. After filling out all the paperwork, I got to the end and it said site is down. So now I don’t have a shot scheduled and I find this quite bull-hockey that we can’t get our shots.”
Neff, 70, is retired from the Navy and lives alone. He says he was expecting to get the vaccine in April or June, but when the governor opened it up for his age group, he was excited. For Neff, the vaccine means safety and path back to normality.
“I want to be safe from this dang thing. When you have nobody else here and you’ve outlived everyone else, you kind of want to be safe and ensure you’re going to be safe,” Neff said. “It’s extremely important.”
Neff says he will be back on the phones and websites Thursday trying to get an appointment. While he was not able to get in on the first day, Debby Hulett was.
“I stayed up until 12:01 this morning to try and get on the website early because I knew today was the day that people 70 and over could do it,” Hulett said. “I thought I needed to get my mother, who is 103, vaccinated as soon as possible.”
Despite staying up late, the process still took hours and the clinics closest to Mount Pleasant where she lives did not have availability until March 18. She was able to find a location in Summerville with availability in February, but says she was under the impression the process would be smoother.
“I thought things were going to change,” Hulett said. “I knew we wouldn’t all going to be able to get vaccinated today but thought there would be appointments in the next week or two. So that was a little disappointing.”
Hulett had similar problems as Neff with busy phone lines and websites that kick you out at the end. However, she says she understands why there are problems.
“I certainly will not be critical of anybody who is working hard to make this rollout happen,” Hulett said. “What I would like to see is something on the DHEC website that clearly says when each location will have the vaccine because some of those locations are right down the street from me and honestly it would be a lot easier to get a 103-year-old down the street than it would be to Summerville.”
MUSC says some of the problems with the schedule system may be beyond their control, like the sheer volume of people trying to connect.
The problem could also result from other factors, such as “.different browsers people are using to access the site (oftentimes which haven’t been updated in a long while), different bandwidth access depending on user geographic location or device, etc,” MUSC said in a statement. “It may call for some persistence given the demand we are seeing, and we’d encourage people to keep trying.”
The South Carolina Hospital Association says the first day has been tricky but says it is encouraging to see so much interest in getting the vaccine. Chief Operating Officer Melanie Matney says they’ve seen several locations have had to shut down their scheduling because they are running out of vaccines. She says the state needs to figure out how to get more doses to hospitals.
Matney estimates there are around 600,000 people over the age of 70 in South Carolina. She encourages everyone to keep trying to get scheduled, but to remain patient.