Massachusetts launched a new COVID-19 vaccination appointment hotline Friday aimed at helping senior citizens who are trying to schedule one but are having trouble navigating the state's vaccine website.
People 75 and older can connect with the hotline by dialing 2-1-1 Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., but not everyone may be able to immediately book an appointment at a location that is accessible to them.
Those people will have the option of going on a "call-back list" will be called when an appointment becomes available.
"We believe this resource will be a huge help to individuals who are over 75 who may not have access to the internet or have trouble using the website," Gov. Charlie Baker said at a State House news conference Friday of the call center as a whole. "However, we still recommend using the website if it's possible to do so."
Here's what the Baker administration said about call backs in an announcement Friday: "If no appointments are available within a distance the caller can travel, then callers will be offered the chance to be placed on a call-back list for the mass vaccination sites. Residents will receive a call-back as appointments become available at these sites. Due to high demand and limited supply, callers may experience significant wait times. The Administration will monitor wait times and make necessary adjustments."
Rilda Seletz, 89, made use of the call-back list, she said Friday. She had immediately called when she heard about the new call center.
"They could only give me something around Boston, which is a little too far," she said. "And nothing closer. I kept saying, 'How about Peabody or Swampscott?'"
She ended up going on the call-back list and feels like she's making progress.
"It's great," Seletz said. "At least you feel like somebody's listening, somebody's trying to do something for you."
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Her daughter, Susan Parker, had found the state's vaccine booking website hard to navigate, and the Marblehead family felt a sense of urgency to secure a slot.
"Anytime somebody says spots are open, we go to the website, and no spots are open locally," she said.
Here's what else you should know about the state's newest tool in its vaccine rollout:
HOW CAN IT HELP?
Operators won't have any special access to appointments, but instead will walk individuals through the same state website available to the public to help them make an appointment, Baker said.
The hotline will be staffed with about 500 English- and Spanish-speaking operators who will have access to translators who can cope with about 100 additional languages, Baker said.
The governor warned, however, he expected there to be wait times on the hotline given the high demand for the service, but said he expected that to be reduced in the coming days.
Those who can should still use the state's vaccine map website to help ensure that the hotline is available to those who most need the extra help, Baker said.
WHO CAN CALL?
Those 75 and older can connect with the hotline, but when vaccines become available to those 65 years old and older, the hotline will also become available to that group, Baker said.
Massachusetts started vaccinating residents 75 years and older Monday as it entered the second phase of its COVID-19 vaccination plan, joining first responders, healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities, who were eligible in Phase 1.
WHY A CALL CENTER?
Various organizations, lawmakers, experts and residents have criticized Massachusetts' COVID-19 vaccination rollout, calling on Baker to set up a hotline to help seniors make appointments. Baker answered the call with a promise to create a call center this week.
"The stress level was kind of really through the roof," said Carolyn Villers, executive director of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council.
Villers says too many older residents are having problems with the state's website.
"We have heard from countless numbers of seniors from across the state who really have been really distraught," said Villers. "A lot of anxiety, a lot of concern."
PUBLIC INFORMATION CAMPAIGN
Baker also announced the launch of a public information campaign Friday, "Trust the Facts, Get the Vax," aimed at members of the Black, Latino and other minority communities who may be more skeptical of getting vaccinated.
The main focus of the campaign includes television ads in English and Spanish, including one that will run during the Super Bowl kickoff ceremonies Sunday, Baker said.
Other ads in multiple languages will also be running online and in print.
Baker said the campaign will feature a diverse group of doctors explaining that the vaccine is safe and effective.
The campaign comes after the Baker administration conducted a survey of 1,000 residents to identify barriers preventing people from getting vaccinated. The survey found that 53 percent of respondents had concerns about the vaccines. People of color and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds were disproportionately represented among those who had concerns, officials said.
"We recognize that insuring access (to vaccines) is not enough, we need to reach out to people in these communities who may be hesitant about the vaccination," Baker said.