Governor Charlie Baker on Thursday said the state will set up a call center for COVID-19 vaccination appointments next week amid sharp criticism of the state’s online scheduling system.
“The two big issues we heard yesterday were, number one, we need some sort of a call center that people who can’t use the online system can access,” Baker said at a news conference about relief for small businesses. “We agree with that, and that will be happening next week. I think the second thing is just the ongoing concern about, ‘when I’m going to get my appointment.’ ”
Dozens of Beacon Hill lawmakers had urged Baker to create a dedicated telephone hotline for seniors trying to secure the vaccine, after the first day of scheduling on Wednesday caused widespread frustration.
In a letter sent to Baker on Thursday, State Senator Anne Gobi and more than 80 colleagues expressed concerns with the online system, saying it had created “barriers for our aging population” and people who lack Internet access or “struggle to use” technology.
“Inadvertently, restricting the sign-up process to a digital format puts our senior population at risk. In searching for the official online tool, the query also provides results not affiliated with the Commonwealth,” the letter read. “This makes residents vulnerable to scams and exposes them to undue online risks.”
Officials said they wanted Baker to setup a dedicated 1-800 number for vaccine appointments to “allow Massachusetts residents to access the sign-up process more easily.”
“Additionally, we request that the administration create a centralized system, under the COVID-19 Task Force, that would allow for a more accessible sign-up process for those who can utilize the online tools,” the letter said. “Currently, residents must choose a location, and then follow one of many links to separate entities to book appointments.”
On Wednesday, the state began the second phase of its COVID-19 vaccination program, allowing people age 75 and older to register for appointments at immunization sites across the state.
But for many, the experience was anything but seamless. The short supply and high demand overwhelmed the scheduling system. And seniors desperate to schedule a shot were left refreshing web pages, waiting for hours in virtual lines, or leaning on family members to help them navigate the process.
“I’ve spent a few hours trying to make an appointment. So have my husband, [other] senators, and many constituents who also qualify as 75+. I have found multiple dead ends,” state Senator Pat Jehlen said by e-mail. “The main site is confusing and contradictory and nonfunctional. There are many sites to sign up at: none that I’ve checked works.”
On Wednesday, Baker said he understood the frustration but said “it’s going to require a certain amount of patience for people to understand that it may take several trips to the website before they’re going to be able to get an appointment.”
Baker reiterated that message on Thursday and said officials are working to make “more resources available for seniors” that would be discussed next week.
He said his administration would take steps to set up the call center to give people a “phone-based alternative” to make an appointment. He did not provide any details, such as its capacity.
“We have work to do on this stuff. The phone piece is something I would have liked to have ready, and we will, soon,” Baker said. “And I know it will make a big difference for people.”
Baker said he’s confident officials can create a call center quickly, saying the state has done it before for other issues during the pandemic.
”We’re pretty good at it. We’re late, but we’re pretty good at it,” he said. “I don’t worry about whether or not the call center will be able to serve people appropriately. It will.”
Before circulating the letter among lawmakers, Gobi tweeted about creating a hotline.
“Come on Governor Baker our Seniors need assistance to get their COVID vaccine,” Gobi wrote. “Create a user friendly 1-800 number and a centralized system.”
Gobi said she is also cosponsoring a bill with state Senators Eric Lesser and Cindy Friedman that would require Baker to establish a centralized appointment portal and a hotline.
“Our seniors need a needle stick in the arm,” Gobi said by e-mail, “not the short end of the stick.”
Following Baker’s announcement, Gobi said while a call center is “a good first step” it “should have been anticipated and put in place before now.”
AARP Massachusetts had also pressed for a vaccine hotline.
“We continue to hear from members that they do not know when, where or how to schedule an appointment. This is unacceptable to AARP and should be to all Bay Staters. Massachusetts can and must do better,” the group said in a letter to Baker. “In many instances, our members cannot access the Internet.”
Matt Stout and Christina Prignano of the Globe staff, contributed to this report.