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Tallahassee Journalist Steps In To Help People Get Vaccine Appointments

NOEL KING, HOST:

A lot of people have found that trying to get a coronavirus vaccine is confusing. So who are the helpers? One of them is a reporter named CD Davidson-Hiers, who works for the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper. She'd been covering the pandemic, and her phone number is printed next to her stories. So when the Leon County Health Department started distributing vaccines...

CD DAVIDSON-HIERS: I was just flooded with calls. How do I get the vaccine? Where do I go? Are they taking appointments? And a lot of people just jumped in their cars and drove to the health department that first day, and they got vaccinated. But then the health department said appointment only. So it was just this entire confusion of what was going on. And I - a lot of the calls I was getting, too, were people thinking that I was the health department.

KING: Davidson-Hiers sees taking those calls as part of her mission as a reporter.

DAVIDSON-HIERS: That's the beauty of local news is you are available to your community. So I have my phone number, my email and then my Twitter handle at the bottom of every story I write.

KING: How many calls would you say that you got?

DAVIDSON-HIERS: I think it was somewhere, like, 57 in the first day, and then it was hundreds after that.

KING: Let me ask you about how the Florida vaccine sign-up system was supposed to be working and why so many people were confused enough that they called your number. What was the confusion?

DAVIDSON-HIERS: I think it was that it just felt like it suddenly happened and everyone had questions. But Florida has 67 counties. Every county had kind of a different system that it was using. So Leon County Health Department, they published a phone number. Call us here. They got 300 calls within the first few hours. I can relate. And their phone number crashed. And then people were trying to get through by email. And then they had an online system that was a little funky to use that they then tried to update, but that caused more confusion because now you have a website that looks different than how people were used to it looking.

KING: So you've been dealing with this for a number of weeks now. You're doing your best to help people, even though technically your job is to be a reporter. Has the sign-up process gotten any easier?

DAVIDSON-HIERS: No, that's a great question. And it comes - to answer it comes at several different directions. So the Leon County Health Department closed their online site because they had just been flooded. And as public health officials have deemed it, it was unsophisticated at best. And so they stopped taking registrations, but they had about 20,000 people, which if you look at U.S. Census data, there's about 40,000 or more seniors in Leon County only. They closed their registration site. They're working on developing a new one.

They've partnered with the Leon County government to get volunteers to start calling all of the thousands of people that they have in their system. But that sparks even more problems because volunteers are not uniform in how they're reaching out to people. They have a script for when they connect with people. But some are calling from their personal phones, which may not be a local area code. Some are calling from - they've blocked their phones, so it'll say no caller ID or unknown, which, in Florida, we're all very used to that being a spam risk. So you're not going to answer. And then they're instructed not to leave voicemails, though some will and say this is the Leon County Health Department volunteer. I'm going to call you back in 90 seconds and try to catch you. So they have different routes that they go.

So there was that process and then the Leon County emergency management got involved to start texting people confirmations that you're still in the system, though they never tell folks, like, where you are in the system, which is another big question. Now, that being said, every time people have gotten through to get their vaccine, the process has been amazingly easy. They say it took, you know, 20 minutes, you know, 15 minutes of them waiting to see if they had a reaction. The people there are working as hard as they can.

KING: CD Davidson-Hiers, thanks so much for taking the time. We appreciate it.

DAVIDSON-HIERS: Yes, ma'am. Thank you for your time.

KING: We reached out to the Leon County Health Department, and we are waiting for their comment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.