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Hundreds of Floridians get COVID-19 vaccine on Marco Island after city website crashes

Hundreds of Floridians went to Marco Island's Mackle Park on Friday to get the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine after making appointments online earlier this week. 

Naples resident Janice Lachowetz, 81, was one of approximately 200 people that received the coveted vaccine. She said taking the vaccine is important because people her age are more vulnerable to the virus.

"We are very thankful because we are very vulnerable and we want to stay healthy," Lachowetz said.

Marco Island resident Bob Winterhalter waits in line to receive his COVID-19 vaccination Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, at Frank E. Mackle Community Park in Marco Island.

Andrew Lachowetz, 81, Janice Lachowetz's husband, said he made an appointment to get the vaccine because he wants to stay healthy. He said he drove to the park the day before just to make sure he knew how to get there Friday.

"We can't take a chance to get the virus," Andrew Lachowetz said.

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Marco resident Sue Keller, 76, said she made the appointment because she is afraid of the virus. She said her husband got the first dose of the vaccine in Cape Coral.

"Every time you are stepping out of your environment it is a risk," Keller said.

After getting the vaccine, Janice Lachowetz said she was thankful for everybody involved in making the vaccine clinic possible.

"We are very thankful because they are doing a wonderful job," Lachowetz said.

Keller and the Lachowetzes said family members helped them Wednesday with making the appointments online.

While many had appointments, some arrived without one, hoping to get the first dose of the vaccine.

Marco resident John Catrambone, 80, said he has been unable to get an appointment online through several websites. He waited with his wife in their car with hopes of getting the vaccine.

"If we all took it (the vaccine), it would be a safer place to live," Catrambone said.

Website crashes

The website of the city of Marco Island crashed at 2 p.m., Jan. 27, 2021, as people tried to make appointments to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The website came back online approximately 30 minutes later. Collier County EMS and the city of Marco Island will hold a COVID-19 vaccine clinic Friday at Mackle Park for Florida residents who are 65 or older and healthcare workers with direct patient contact.

The city's website crashed Wednesday as possibly thousands of web visitors attempted to make one of 200 available appointments to get the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, the city announced in a news release later that day.

The website was down for about 30 minutes, the Marco Eagle observed.

The city apologized for the inconvenience many residents experienced as they tried to register for a COVID-19 vaccine on the city's website.

On an average day, the city's website has 2,120 visitors with 6,693 page views, Assistant to the City Manager Casey Lucius wrote in an email Wednesday.

"Today we had 41,693 website visitors and 651,259 page views," Lucius wrote.

"As a result, our city website slowed down and became unresponsive," the city said.

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Hundreds of Floridians went to Marco Island's Mackle Park on Friday to get the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine after making appointments online earlier in the week. In the photo, people register to get the vaccine at Mackle Park on Jan. 29, 2021.

The city instructed Florida residents to visit its website www.cityofmarcoisland.com at 2 p.m., Wednesday, and to click on a red banner on the top of the page to make the reservations on Eventbrite, an event management and ticketing website.

At 2 p.m., the city also shared the Eventbrite link on its social media accounts. At approximately 2:15 p.m., the city announced on social media all 200 appointment slots were full.

The website came back online at approximately 2:27 p.m.

"Some people were still able to access the Eventbrite page and make a reservation through the city’s website or through the link posted on our city social media sites," the city said.

"The two access points were available just as they were for our first round of distribution," City Manager Mike McNees wrote in an email Wednesday.

Marco resident Yvonne Ventura, 89, said Thursday she felt stressed trying to get an appointment the day before. She was one of likely thousands of people who were not able to schedule one.

Ventura said her daughter, her son and neighbors have been trying for weeks to schedule a vaccine appointment for her through multiple entities and companies like the city and Publix.

"She had her phone and I had mine. I guess everybody did the same thing, and that is when the website crashed. I just felt very stressed," Ventura said.

Ventura said the COVID-19 pandemic has changed her way of life.

"I have a 15-year-old great-grandson and I barely get to see him," Ventura said. "I've hugged nobody for a year."

Ventura said she hopes to get the vaccine soon.

"I hope I get the shot soon because I certainly don't want to get the virus. I love living," Ventura said.

Phone lines were busy

The city's website was not the only thing that took a hit Wednesday.

"Due to the website challenges, over 9,000 residents called City Hall between 2:00-3:00 p.m. causing all of our phone lines to be in use at the same time which defaulted to a busy signal for callers," the city wrote.

"The city is following state of Florida and Department of Health protocols for vaccine distribution and will continue to communicate updates with the community as we receive more information and more vaccine supplies from the state and the county," the city wrote.

Collier County EMS Chief Tabatha Butcher wrote in an email Wednesday morning her agency has an agreement with Florida Department of Health to assist with vaccinations.

"We receive vaccinations from Department of Health and then we work with our partners to set up vaccination sites," Butcher wrote. 

Butcher wrote EMS is in charge of bringing the vaccinations and assuring the paperwork is completed, and the city sets up the logistics of sign up and location.

Marco Island Fire-Rescue Chief Christopher Byrne said Friday the city will do things differently if it holds another vaccine clinic. He said the city does not begin planning vaccine clinics until the Florida Department of Health tells them they have allocated doses for the clinic.

"We are not going to repeat last week's (Wednesday's) experience," Byrne said.

On Jan. 22, the city and Collier EMS administered more than 200 doses at Veterans' Community Park. The appointment slots were filled within three minutes of being made available online on Jan. 20, according to the city.

A light at the end of the tunnel

As older adults like Catrambone and Ventura continue to struggle making appointments online, an emergency response nonprofit called Marco Patriots is organizing a group of volunteers to make appointments on their behalf.

Erin Mia Milchman, board president of the organization, said Thursday it all started earlier in the week when a member of the group made two appointments for an elderly couple. Milchman said the couple called her back to hear the good news.

"She called me and she was sobbing," Milchman said. "She was overjoyed. She made me cry."

Milchman said about a dozen volunteers woke up before sunrise Friday to make appointments on behalf of several older adults on Publix's website. She said 44 residents have signed up for this service but that the volunteers were unable to make any appointments on Friday morning because all slots filled quickly.

"My phone has been ringing off the hook," Milchman wrote in a text message Friday.

Milchman said people interested in signing up can send her an email with the following information: name, address, phone number, email, medical conditions, allergies and an emergency contact.

For more information, contact Erin Mia Milchman via email at erinmia.milchman@marcopatriots.org.

Contact Omar at omar.rodriguezortiz@naplesnews.com, and follow him on Twitter as @Omar_fromPR. Support his work by subscribing to Naples Daily News.