The calls kept coming. And coming. With 800 flu shots to give away, Montgomery County's Health Department began accepting names for its lottery at 8 a.m. yesterday.
By 10:30 a.m., about 2,000 high-risk county residents had gotten on the list.
By 1:30 p.m., about 4,500 had given their names -- and 4,500 more had logged on to the Health Department's Web site, where flu shot hopefuls could fill out their information online. By day's end, at 6:30 p.m., health officials expected to have logged as many as 10,000 names, and they have two more 101/2-hour days to take names.
"Now, that was interesting," said Ed Wlodarczak, a senior public health adviser for the county, as he hung up the phone. "A physician called up for his mother," because he can't get the vaccine. "And he tried to get on the list, but he's underage."
"It's crazy," said an operator across the table from him into her cell phone, on a rare break from answering the phone in front of her.
School nurse Rose Starin, who had been dispatched to answer phones for the flu lottery, was telling one caller: "Well, good luck," as she tried to hang up. But the person on the other end of the line kept asking questions about other opportunities for flu shots and how to stay healthy.
"Not that I know of," Starin said. "Just wash your hands a lot. Yeah. You've got to do what you can."
Hanging up, she rubbed her left ear. "It hurts," she sighed.
Health officials across the region have been scrambling to find enough doses to inoculate high-risk residents since the federal government announced that 48 million doses would not be available because of possible contamination.
Montgomery has cobbled together its supply from other health departments with surpluses -- Calvert County provided 600 doses -- and announced Wednesday that it would distribute the vaccine by lottery, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The winners will have to present photo identification before receiving vaccinations.
Yesterday, the conference room looked not unlike a Jerry Lewis telethon, with operators hunched over phones on tables crowded with water bottles, red grapes, large trays of cookies, and stacks of pink forms with large bold print at the top, which read: "Flu Vaccine Lottery Entry Form."
The questions that callers had to answer correctly to be registered were: 1. Are you a Montgomery County resident? 2. Are you high risk? What category?
"In 100 percent of the calls I've taken," said Mary Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, "people say, 'I'm 78 and my husband's 82' " -- even before she could ask whether they were in a high-risk category. "They know what the questions are."
Some of the callers may have phoned more than once in an effort to "stuff the ballot box," noted Carol Jordan, a senior health care administrator with the county. But officials will take all the names and information given over the phones and online and plug them into a computer database. The computer will then randomly choose the lucky 800 who get shots.
So even if some have called more than once, their names will be entered only once.
The lottery will continue through 6:30 p.m. Monday because "we wanted to give people an equal chance," Anderson said. "If you work all day today, you can call tomorrow. If you're out of town this week, you can call on Monday."
And as the calls kept coming, operators who needed a rest had cards next to their stations that read: "BREAK" or "Lunch Shift" or "Relief."
"The phones don't stop," marveled operator Gill Marta, a community health nurse. "It's busy, busy, busy."
"One lady was like, 'My doctor's in Montgomery County. I can give you my doctor's number.' And I'm like, 'No, ma'am,' " Marta said.
"We only have 800 shots," school nurse Julie Olson said into her phone. "The lucky winners will get it."
The odds of winning -- in a county of about 900,000 people -- have become slight enough that some local media dubbed Montgomery County's solution the Flu Vaccine Powerball.
Officials expect to call the winners to set up appointments for their shots by the first week of November.