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State tries to fix overwhelmed vaccination hotline; COVID hospitalizations still high

As COVID-19 deaths mount locally, a state vaccination hotline was quickly overwhelmed by thousands of callers seeking immunizations and “has not worked very well,” a top Alabama health leader said Wednesday.

Dr. Karen Landers, the assistant state health officer, said officials are trying to fix the problem.

Landers said the hotline, run by a contractor, was not able to handle the initial demand when it began operating, despite having 100 lines and 165 workers trained to answer calls. The phone number received 1.1 million calls in its first day, the Alabama Department of Public Health said previously.

The hotline number is 1-855-566-5333. An ADPH statement issued Wednesday afternoon said no more vaccine appointments are available at county health departments, but people who call into the hotline will be added to a waiting list and will be contacted when appointments are available.

Besides adding additional capacity to the hotline, Landers said, workers are trying to get an online system in place so people can make reservations for vaccinations without calling.

But even if the problems are resolved, she said, all the vaccine doses the state has received so far have been spoken for. Additional shipments are needed to fulfill the state’s initial vaccine allotment of 271,000 doses, she said.

“What vaccine we have in Alabama we will give,” Landers said at a news conference.

Even though the ADPH listed Madison County in the low risk level for COVID on Wednesday, hospitalizations from the virus at Madison Hospital and Huntsville Hospital remain at high levels.

Madison Hospital on Wednesday had 55 COVID-19 inpatients. Five of the patients were in intensive care and on ventilators. Huntsville Hospital had 161 patients with the virus. Thirty-eight were in the ICU, including 28 on ventilators.

Landers said more than 87,000 people had been vaccinated as of Monday in Alabama, which has a population of 4.9 million. The first doses went to health care workers, and the hotline was flooded after the state opened up appointments for people 75 and older.

More than 5,700 people have died in Alabama of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, state statistics show, and more than 2,900 are hospitalized, a slight improvement from earlier in the month. Nearly 411,000 people have tested positive for the virus.

While COVID-19 causes only mild to moderate symptoms in most people, it can be deadly for the elderly and people with other, serious health problems.

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