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Confusion, tech glitch agitates residents hungry for vaccine

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Alpena resident Suzanne Kelly on Thursday refills the birdfeeder outside her home on 2nd Avenue. Kelly said she was frustrated earlier this week when trying to pre-register for a COVID-19 vaccination appointment.

ALPENA — The excitement surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine rollout quickly turned into frustration this week as thousands of Northeast Michiganders vied for an appointment to receive the vaccination.

On Monday, the state made the vaccine available to thousands of Northeast Michiganders who are 65 years and older, essential frontline workers, or work with or care for children.

When technical difficulties that day prevented residents from registering online for a vaccination appointment — as they’d been told to do — the local health departments received thousands of phone calls per hour.

Many Northeast Michigan residents trying to make their appointments could not get through or were disconnected after several rings. Many looked for information on District Health Department No. 4’s Facebook page, but said they did not find it there until later.

Alpena resident Suzanne Kelly said she kept calling and it seemed like the Health Department’s machine wasn’t working, because she couldn’t get through or she would dial and the phone system would cut her off.

After failing to reach anyone at the Health Department on Monday, Kelly, 65, continued calling on Tuesday.

“I kept dialing and redialing all day long,” she said. “Finally, it came down to 4 p.m. and my husband had gone back and checked their Facebook page, and they had posted you could enter your information online now.”

Kelly said that, after watching Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announce on Wednesday that Meijer would offer vaccine clinics, she and her husband registered with the grocer and were done in five minutes.

District Health Department No. 4 spokeswoman Cathy Goike said Health Officer Denise Bryan apologizes for the confusion and delay caused by the technical glitch on Monday. Goike said the Health Department got the link for online pre-registrations working by Tuesday afternoon.

Goike said the overwhelming response from those wanting the vaccine has been both exciting and challenging and that the Health Department has received thousands of pre-registrations to date.

“We had added many additional lines to the ones we already had in use to be able to respond to calls,” she said “We brought in volunteers to man the phones along with our staff to field over 1,200 phone calls per hour.”

On a per-capita basis, Alpena County has administered more doses than most Michigan counties, likely because Alpena County hosts MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena and health care workers were among the first eligible for the vaccine. Other Northeast Michigan counties fell much further behind, and all counties have vaccinated only a fraction of the 75% or so of adults who need to be vaccinated to truly defeat the coronavirus.

Nationwide, public health officials and other government leaders have been criticized for a slow and haphazard rollout of the vaccine, the largest public health endeavor in a century.

Public health officials on Friday reported eight newly infected Northeast Michiganders, including five Alpena County residents, one Presque Isle County resident, and two Montmorency County residents.

Officials also lowered by 86 the cumulative number of Alcona County infections. It wasn’t immediately clear officials adjusted the Alcona numbers downward. Officials at District Health Department No. 2, which oversees the county, couldn’t be reached for comment on Friday.

Previous adjustments have rectified data-entry errors.

State data showed that, as of Thursday, 2,873 doses of coronavirus vaccine had been administered in Northeast Michigan.

As of Thursday, nine people were hospitalized at MidMichigan Medical Center-Alpena, none in intensive care, according to state data. The hospital was 36% full.

As of Friday, 63 people were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infection across the state-designated, 18-county health care region that includes Alpena, Presque Isle, and Montmorency counties, according to state data.

Since the pandemic hit Michigan in mid-March, 2,167 Northeast Michiganders have been infected, according to local health data. That total reflects the updated Alcona County data.

Of those, 83 have died.

The last death was reported Thursday.

Greenbush resident Cathy Keener, 70, said she’s still excited the vaccine is available, but she’s frustrated because she’s been trying since before Christmas to get on a waiting list for an appointment.

“I’ve called Walgreens, I’ve called WalMart, I’ve called Rite Aid, wanting to know if any of them had a sign-up sheet and, of course, the answer was no,” Keener said. “I did finally get through on the Meijer’s site (Wednesday) night and I got myself registered and I got my husband registered.”

Keener said she and her husband also managed to sign up for an upcoming District Health Department No. 2 clinic in Oscoda, but were told that signing up does not guarantee they’ll receive a vaccine on that day.

“It’s been very frustrating,” she said. “I have underlying conditions and my oldest child and her children I have not seen in over a year due to the COVID. My husband has underlying conditions and our youngest daughter and her child we haven’t seen but one time in a year. We are very anxiously wanting this vaccine to resume some kind of a normal life.”

Goike, of the Health Department, said it was hard to respond to voicemails when employees and volunteers were on the phones making appointments.

Many of the available appointments have been filled, Goike said, noting they are adding more clinic days and extra time slots to the clinics already scheduled. She said the number of appointments they can schedule is based on the number of vaccine doses the Health Department receives.

“We are adding clinics daily as we speak when we get vaccine shipment confirmation,” she said. “We ask that everyone, if possible, complete the online pre-registration form. As clinics and additional slots are added, we will use these pre-registrations to make appointments.”

She said Health Department officials are also working with community partners and distributing vaccines to them.

Those who have managed to make appointments for the vaccine will have to receive two doses before it becomes effective.

The vaccines are believed to be about 50% effective about one to two weeks after the first dose, Lydia Watson, chief medical officer and senior vice president of MidMichigan Health, the Midland-based owner of the Alpena hospital, said in an email to The News.

Even after being vaccinated, people should continue using all the tools available to stop the pandemic, such as wearing a mask, washing their hands, and remaining six feet away from others, Watson said.

“The research trials have demonstrated that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are 95% protective, meaning that each person receiving two doses of vaccine has a 95% chance of being protected one to two weeks after the second dose,” she said.

Until the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends stopping precautions, Watson said, the public should continue with masking, hand hygiene, and social distancing.

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