On Friday, March 6, a line into Gulfport’s Multipurpose Senior Center stretched around the parking lot; Gulfport police manned the area, orange cones and Senior Center staff directed the crowd as they filled out COVID-19 vaccine consent forms.
The COVID-19 vaccine popup, a combined effort of the City of Gulfport, the Gulfport Senior Center and Pinellas County Emergency Management, upped the number of available vials from 600 to 660 following an explosion of registrations after the site was announced last week.
The appointment window stretched from 9 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., and the line was still kicking with registrants 65 and older and hopeful bystanders betting on extra doses.
“We have such a good relationship with our seniors here in Gulfport. The team at Pinellas Emergency Management said because of that, we were the only city they considered doing this with,” said Senior Center Director Rachel Cataldo.
Gulfport and Pinellas previously worked with leadership at Town Shores, a 55-plus community, to bring vaccines on February 10 to seniors who struggled with the online registration system.
Call Center Down
For this vaccine popup, city and county officials planned to install a two-day temporary call center Thursday, February 25 and Friday, February 26.
Unfortunately, that effort stalled almost as soon as it started: The call center crashed and organizers moved registration to five outdoor booths in the Senior Center parking lot.
“When that happened we were all like, ‘Well, we have to figure something out.’” Cataldo said. “We packed up and came out here, and people were just happy to be able to secure their appointments.”
The four-line call center was initially set up at Gulfport City Hall, with 16 additional lines forwarded to city officials, including Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly.
O’Reilly, who watched his 81-year-old father-in-law struggle with getting the vaccine, knows first hand how hard the process has been for seniors.
“We are glad to help,” O’Reilly said.
Organizers sent newsletters and emails to qualifying seniors and 55-plus communities. Phone lines were set to begin signing people up at noon.
At 12:01 p.m., the call center began receiving 23 calls per second, and nearly immediately went down. After alerting seniors, the center moved registration to the outdoor booths and officials went to work personally calling individuals.
“It was such a number of people that called,” said O’Reilly. “The people we did reach were appreciative to speak to someone.”
In the Waiting Line
“I’ve been taking vaccinations my whole life,” said St. Petersburg resident John Elis. “This isn’t any different.”
The mood of those waiting in line on March 5 was more or less one of relief. Seniors who had trouble accessing the vaccine registration website were now being catered to, close to home.
“I didn’t use the call center at all,” said St. Petersburg senior Pam Hayes. “A friend signed me up in person, and here I am finally.”
According to Cataldo, those who got their dose on March 5 will get their second shots Friday, March 26. At this time,no future popup of this kind is in the works for the city.
“The phone lines going down was frustrating to say the least,” Cataldo said. “I like everything to run perfectly, but we got the vaccinations and it all worked out regardless.”