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Massachusetts’ vaccine appointment hotline to be a ‘call-back system,’ lawmakers told

System due to launch next week, though several details remain unclear

People eligible to be vaccinated for COVID-19 checked in at Fenway Park on Friday.
People eligible to be vaccinated for COVID-19 checked in at Fenway Park on Friday.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

The Baker administration is planning by Friday to launch a live call center where eligible residents can request an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccination and then be notified when a slot is available, according to people briefed on the state’s plans.

State officials are scrambling to respond to widespread complaints that Massachusetts began its rollout without a more comprehensive plan to reach many of those residents who most urgently need the vaccine.

Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of health and human services, sketched the rough contours of the fledgling center on a call Friday with members of the Massachusetts Senate, describing it as a “call-back system,” three legislators on the call said.

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Sudders said the state intends to pull call-takers from the state’s other existing contracted call centers, according to the lawmakers, two of whom said Sudders explicitly said no one would be shifted from the customer service center for the state’s unemployment benefits.

But key details of the plan appeared fluid. Sudders said generally that 400 to 450 call-takers could handle up to 10,000 calls, according to legislators, but she did not say how many employees would staff the center.

Lawmakers said they also did not know if the hotline would be accessible in multiple languages, something experts and lawmakers have called for since Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday the state would establish a call center by next week.

“I don’t think it will obviously be enough. But I think it’s a start,” said state Senator Anne M. Gobi, a Spencer Democrat who was on the call with Sudders. Gobi is one of 60 lawmakers endorsing legislation filed by Senator Eric P. Lesser that would require the state to create a 24-hour help line for people seeking doses.

Kate Reilly, a spokeswoman for the state’s COVID-19 Command Center, did not respond to questions about the call Friday, saying more information is expected next week.

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The current, online-only system for booking vaccination appointments has frustrated many eligible residents, particularly seniors, and has placed people who are not able to readily access the Internet at a disadvantage.

Available appointments, meanwhile, have been quickly snatched up, including at vaccination mega-sites at Gillette Stadium and Fenway Park, with demand quickly stretching the state’s already under-utilized supply of vaccines. Mass vaccinations for people age 75 and older are scheduled to begin Monday.

Officials in other states have created systems to take appointments by phone, including Florida. In Alabama, a state of 4.9 million people, officials created an online portal but only after the toll-free number set up to schedule appointments was flooded with 1.1 million calls on its first day.

Sudders admitted to lawmakers that Massachusetts’ website was “not consumer-friendly,” said state Senator Rebecca L. Rausch, a Needham Democrat who was on the call Friday.

“I cannot shake the question of why it wasn’t done sooner, and why the website is such a disaster,” Rausch said of creating the hotline. “A public outcry from Stockbridge to Boston, and an emergency bill from the Legislature, should not have been necessary to achieve a call center or a vastly better website.”

The establishment of the helpline will require an effort on the scale of the state’s dramatic expansion of its unemployment insurance call center at the pandemic’s outset, according to Cimarron Buser, chief executive of The Appointment Scheduling & Booking Industry Association, a software industry trade group based in Wellesley Hills.

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“If you want to avoid the next problem, which is people call . . . and they get put on hold, then you haven’t really solved the problem,” Buser said. “You’ve just moved it to a new medium.”

As the pandemic quickly wiped out jobs in the spring, overwhelming the Department of Unemployment Assistance customer service center with calls, officials expanded its staff from 50 to nearly 2,000 people at one point. It now has 670 employees handling an average of 16,000 calls per day, officials said.

Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, said ideally the call center would have enough staff so people aren’t waiting on hold for more than 30 minutes. “This needs to be one-stop shopping,” he said.

The introduction of the hotline is a belated opportunity to address some of the shortcomings of the vaccine registration system, according to public health advocates.

Carlene Pavlos, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association, said it is crucial that the hotline be available in multiple languages.

“The vehicles for access that are being created by the administration are so much easier for people who already speak English, have a good Internet connection, have access to a primary care physician who they talk to frequently — who are already plugged in,” Pavlos said. “It is precisely those communities that experience disenfranchisement and historical racism and may not speak English as a first language who are being left behind.”

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Al Vega, director of policy and programs at the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health, wants to see more urgency around accessibility.

“I’m really hoping that the governor continues to hear what these needs are and do good things like roll out this hotline, but hopefully be able to do them more efficiently and urgently,” Vega said. “Because obviously people are in desperate need.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.