Hillsborough County moves all vaccine registration to phone system; expands call center workers, hours

UPDATE: At this time, all appointments must be made by phone. Online registration has been temporarily discontinued. Appointments are available by calling 888-755-2822. The call center will be open until 8 p.m., Monday, Jan. 4, and will operate from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 5.

Get updated information about Hillsborough County vaccines at https://www.fox13news.com/news/hillsborough-county-covid-19-vaccine-distribution.

Hillsborough County's COVID-19 vaccine online and phone systems were overwhelmed Monday morning. However, the county said Monday night it was expanding the operational hours of its vaccine call center and will triple the number of call agents starting Tuesday, to help residents in this category secure appointments.

The county opened the vaccine up to seniors, those ages 65 or older, by rolling out an appointment website and phone line, but immediately there were a series of issues.

The Hillsborough County Emergency Management Director Timothy Dudley said the call center had over 2,000 calls a minute, at one point. He said they will be better prepared Tuesday, tripling call center workers and beefing up the website.

"We’re working with our teams here to troubleshoot the problem to ensure that once we bring the online system back online that we have the appropriate capacity to handle that," said Dudley, who said the website won’t be available Tuesday so seniors will need to call to make appointments.

The Florida Health Department in Hillsborough County has 9,000 vaccines it plans to distribute to the general senior population by appointment only.

Hillsborough County COVID-19 vaccine distribution

As COVID-19 vaccines are distributed throughout the state of Florida, individual counties are beginning to release information about how and to whom the two-dose vaccine will be distributed.

Tampa Bay is not the only area struggling with the sudden demand.

"We’re not unique. Florida, Texas, California, New York, they’ve all be kind of tripping and falling over themselves trying to do this," said Dr. Jay Wolfson, a public health professor at USF Health.

Dr. Wolfson said citizens are seeing the consequences of slashed budgets for public health.

"They just have not been prepared in terms of person power, in terms of resources, software, hardware, communications, distribution systems to handle this," said Wolfson.

RELATED: How to get the COVID vaccine in Hillsborough County

Public health officials are working with what they have, but Dr. Wolfson said counties may need more help.

"If the governor is saying the county has a responsibility for deciding what to do, I think that’s a good idea because counties know what their local situations are, but counties need to have resources available," he said.

Seeking COVID vaccine, Pinellas seniors get only blank screens, busy phone lines

Pinellas has vaccinated thousands of nursing home and other long-term care facilities, but many more seniors are in the general population and, to many, it seems the registration and vaccination process is off to a slow start. 

And more help may be needed when it comes time to give out the shot.

"We don’t have enough staffing in the health departments, and we’d have to bring people in, just as we did for testing. We recruited students from USF, from UCF, from University of Miami, University of Tampa," said Wolfson.

For seniors trying to make appointments in Hillsborough County, officials said there are thousands of slots still available. Dudley said they will keep taking appointments the rest of the week, and there is no waiting list.

Polk County seniors wait for vaccine updates

Lucy and Ernie Geist are not kids anymore. She is 78, and he is 81, which means they are in one of the most vulnerable groups for severe illness due to COVID-19.