High demand leads to rocky start for vaccine appointments at the United Center

Registration for 110,000 appointments opened up Thursday for people 65 or older. Drive-thru slots booked up for March in a matter of hours, but “tens of thousands” of walk-up appointments were available later in the afternoon.

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A COVID-19 vaccination center being constructed in a parking lot at the United Center,

The first vaccinations will go into arms Tuesday outside the United Center site.

Scott Olson/Getty

Alicia Martinez spent 1 12 hours on hold Thursday trying to book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for her partner at the United Center.

Then, at last, a human voice answered. Martinez had just finished giving the woman on the line her partner’s date of birth when she got disconnected.

“I was angry, I was upset. I was everything,” said Martinez, who is 67 and lives in Berwyn.


Alicia Martinez tries to sign up for a vaccination at her home in Berwyn, Thursday, March 4, 2021. Martinez has become frustrated with how hard is to schedule an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine after numerous attempts to call in and set up online.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Martinez wasn’t alone in her frustration — a fact city officials acknowledged Thursday as they began to book appointments for what is by far the largest mass vaccination site in town.

“Some people weren’t able to get through immediately, a sign of how much demand there is for appointments,” said Dr. Allison Arwady, head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, during a COVID-19 Q&A on Facebook Live.

The online problems that surfaced with the 8:30 a.m. launch appeared to have been resolved by late morning and by the afternoon many walk-up appointments were listed on the site, although those booked up within a few hours.

Arwady said the website was fielding about 24,000 hits per minute when it first opened, and within a few hours of launching, a “huge rush of people” had booked up all drive-thru appointments for the month of March.

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By 3 p.m., a total of 27,819 appointments had been booked out of the 110,000-plus made available, officials said.

During a town hall event hosted by AARP Illinois, Dr. Rachel Bernard, the medical director of the CDPH’s COVID response bureau, noted that “tens of thousands” of walk-up appointments were still available.

For those who tried to use the phone, it was difficult to get through all day. Several attempts by the Sun-Times to call the phone number provided were met with busy signals earlier in the day. Later, hold times were long, although one call went through in about 35 minutes Thursday evening.

The city has reassigned 200 COVID-19 contact tracers to help bolster the call center taking United Center appointments.

“Especially early on, there were some people getting busy signals,” Arwady said. “The system can handle about 600 calls at any one moment, but keep calling. There are appointments, and we’ll work to get folks in.”

A spokesperson for Zocdoc, the company the city is using to make the appointments, acknowledged the early online glitches but said they were resolved in less than 30 minutes.

“We continue to actively monitor the service and our systems to deliver a smooth booking experience for Illinois residents,” the company said in a statement. “We apologize to everyone who was affected early this morning, and we look forward to helping more eligible individuals find and book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment.”

At an unrelated news conference, Mayor Lori Lightfoot urged the public to be patient.

“It’s the first opportunity,” Lightfoot said. “We got a lot of enthusiastic people. We’ll get to folks. We just need to be a little bit patient today as both the phone lines and the online platform process tier applications.”

Martinez said it took her about 4 12 hours in total to book an appointment for her partner, who has a lung condition and heart problems. It was, she said, an ordeal that left her in tears.

“Horrible,” is the word she used to describe it. She managed to get her partner an appointment for 9:30 a.m. March 10.


Alicia Martinez poses for a portrait at her home in Berwyn, Thursday, March 4, 2021. Martinez has become frustrated with how hard is to schedule an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine after numerous attempts to call in and set up online.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

To register, go to zocdoc.com/vaccine, or call (312) 746-4835. Call centers will be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. With the huge demand for appointments, officials urge people to use the online signup if possible.

If any appointments are still available by 4 p.m. Sunday, people 16 or older with chronic health conditions will be eligible to start taking those spots.

The first shots will go into arms outside the United Center site Tuesday. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will administer about 6,000 doses per day in tents set up in the parking lot northeast of the stadium.

During Thursday’s town hall, Dr. Bernard also advised seniors to seek out appointments through their employers or doctors, as well as major pharmacy chains, like CVS and Walgreens.

The city’s health department is also offering at-home inoculations to some seniors, though Bernard acknowledged that it could take a month or two for the city to send a paramedic to administer a vaccine dose. To see if you qualify, fill out the vaccine survey on the CDPH’s website at chicago.gov.

Contributing: Mitchell Armentrout and Fran Spielman

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