Buncombe residents unable to make COVID-19 vaccine appointments as county phone outage continues

STUCK ON HOLD: Until Buncombe County’s phone lines are repaired, residents 75 and older hoping to schedule a COVID-19 vaccine appointment are instructed to call the Buncombe Ready Team at 828-419-0095. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County

Buncombe County government offices experienced a countywide phone outage on the first day of signups for the COVID-19 vaccine, frustrating residents attempting to make appointments. 

On Jan. 6, the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services announced staff would begin taking calls from individuals 75 years and older to schedule COVID-19 vaccine appointments in alignment with Phase 1b of the state’s vaccination plan. Community members were instructed to call the health department the following morning.

But according to a press release issued the morning of Jan. 7, a “vendor-related issue” caused communication outages across the county. As a temporary workaround, callers were instructed to call the Buncombe Ready team at 828-419-0095. 

Phone lines were restored around 3:30 p.m., more than six hours after the problem began. 

In an email to Xpress, Buncombe spokesperson Lillian Govus said an “incredible” volume of people had been attempting to make appointments throughout the day. “We are so thankful for such a positive reception to the vaccine and share everyone’s enthusiasm,” she said. “To help alleviate the pressure on the phone systems, we are developing an online registration system and we hope to have it available this evening.” 

Robert Gunn, an 85-year-old Buncombe County resident with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said he had called the Ready Team phone line several times over the course of the main phone outage, with no response. 

“Buncombe County was as ill-prepared for this situation to sign up for a vaccine this morning as the situation in Washington they were so ill-prepared for yesterday,” Gunn said. “The health department has fallen down on something that I think is very important.” 

Because the county receives vaccine allotments from the state, appointments will be scheduled conservatively, Govus said. This week’s shipment included 975 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine; future allocations remain unknown

By the end of the day on Jan. 7, Govus said 1,006 people successfully made appointments for the week of Monday, Jan. 11. A minimum of 500 appointments will be scheduled each week moving forward; more may be added depending on county allocations. 

Updated at 10 a.m. on Jan. 8 to include the number of scheduled appointments. 

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About Molly Horak
Molly is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and writer for Mountain Xpress. Her work has appeared in the Citizen-Times, News and Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow me @molly_horak

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