Scammers have reportedly gained access to an Allegheny County hotline set up to provide information to the public during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a statement from the county Thursday afternoon.
The news came after the county expanded services offered by the 2-1-1 hotline to include making appointments for people age 65 and older at its COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Monroeville.
The county said that some callers were met by “individuals asking for credit card information or for gift cards to be sent to them in order to have an appointment made.” Those reports are being investigated by the phone carriers, said a county spokesperson.
Additionally, all 750 upcoming slots at the clinic had been filled less than four hours after operators began making appointments by phone. As a result, operators have stopped taking appointment requests through the hotline.
As Allegheny County residents continue competing online for limited COVID-19 vaccine appointments, those without computers have often been left in the dust.
“Navigating the online registration can be a challenge for some of our county’s seniors, and vaccinating this group is a top priority for the Health Department,” Health Department director Dr. Debra Bogen said in a press release announcing the hotline.
Once new appointments become available, the County expects to offer the service again. The booking support is designed to assist residents over the age of 65 secure vaccine appointments at the county’s Monroeville clinic inside the DoubleTree Hotel.
Callers will be asked to provide an email address or mobile phone number where they can receive a reminder to schedule the second dose in the vaccine series. For those without an email address or mobile phone, instructions will be provided on when to contact 2-1-1 to schedule their second dose appointment.
A county spokesperson said the line was overrun with calls shortly after it launched at noon Thursday. There were multiple reports of callers unable to get through. The county said this was expected due to the demand for the vaccine across the region.
Previously, the 2-1-1 hotline was established to answer general questions about the coronavirus pandemic. It has been operated by the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. The hotline has also offered support for parents and school administrators with questions about kids heading back to school in September. The county said these services are still available through the hotline.
“The United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania has been a great partner throughout the pandemic, and I am happy they are able to help the Health Department and our seniors register for vaccine appointments,” Bogen said Thursday.
Bill Johnston-Walsh, state director of AARP Pennsylvania, said he welcomes the new resource. AARP Pennsylvania criticized the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout in a recent letter, calling for an improved state hotline to help AARP members book appointments.
Currently, the state’s 1-877-PA-HEALTH hotline directs callers to the health department’s website. Call-takers can instruct callers through booking an appointment, but do not book on behalf of the caller.
*This story has been updated.