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Note: This story was updated at 11:34 a.m. on Jan. 13 to clarify eligible residents in Phase 1-A living in the Northwest Georgia Health District may still get the vaccine but will not be able to register online. They will need to call their local health departments to get an appointment to get a COVID-19 vaccine. A previous version of this story stated the health district discontinued a hotline. The North Georgia Health District discontinued a hotline, not the Northwest Georgia Health District.

On Monday morning at about 10:30 a.m., John Hutterer, 79, called a 1-800 number from his home in Chickamauga, Georgia.

Hutterer let the phone ring more than a dozen times before he hung up and tried again. After a handful of calls, he figured he'd check the Georgia Department of Public Health's website to hopefully get an appointment to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Basically, I got the answering machine that whole time," Hutterer said. "So that's when I proceeded to do it online. I'm not very good on computers, and when I try to submit something on the computer most of the time I am not successful."

Hutterer has lived in Walker County since 2005. He's originally from Pennsylvania and owned a summer home in New Jersey with his late wife before moving south.

A practical and straightforward man with an East Coast accent ("I don't worry about catching COVID-19. I'm 79 years old, how many more years do I have on this Earth?"), Hutterer was one of thousands of people across Georgia who were newly eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine but ran into issues and delays when trying to make an appointment.

The Northwest Georgia Health District has since suspended its online registration for eligible residents and is asking residents to instead call their local health departments to make an appointment. 

"We had to close online registration because the number of registrations we were receiving was increasing at a far greater rate than we are capable of scheduling appointments to immunize people with our limited vaccine supply," Logan Boss, spokesman for the health district, said in an email Tuesday.

(READ MORE: Getting the COVID-19 vaccine in Northwest Georgia? Here's what you need to know.)

Boss said online registration for vaccine appointments are available only to health care providers and first responders.

"Unless they are a health care provider or a first responder, they can no longer register online to be notified of vaccine availability and schedule an appointment," Boss said. "We had discontinued this. People are asked to call their county health department."

Instead, residents who were once deemed eligible are now being asked to call their local county health departments to try and schedule an appointment in the future.

"If you have difficulty reaching us, please be patient and persistent," Boss said. "Keep calling."

The state's plan to expand access to the vaccine to people over 65 got off to a rocky start Monday, with the websites of at least two public health districts crashing and other districts reporting overwhelming demand for appointments.

According to the CDC, Georgia ranks 46th in the U.S. for COVID-19 vaccines administered per capita.

The state was already struggling with its vaccine rollout before the latest woes.

Jennifer King, spokesperson with the North Georgia Health District — which includes Whitfield and Murray counties — said the website to make vaccine appointments is down.

Based on Boss' update, Hutterer is considered to be one of the lucky ones.

"It took me about three or four times to get my entry in," he said. "I submitted it about 11:30 in the morning but haven't heard anything yet today."

As far as he knows, Hutterer successfully submitted a request to get an appointment, but it's nothing to be celebrated.

"Well, I'm not going to be happy until I get my call back," he said with a chuckle. "It doesn't do me any good if I don't get my call back."

James Jones, 67, lives in Catoosa County and recently moved from Memphis. He wasn't able to reach anyone on the phone Monday or Tuesday.

"It's just a mess," Jones said. "The good thing is is they went ahead and got the vaccines, got them to the places they needed to go and then it's kind of like it stopped."

Jones understands health care providers and first responders should be the top priority, but the rollout has been anything but organized, he said.

"Sixty five and older, we're just sitting here waiting," Jones said. "Meanwhile, on the news all you see is more and more deaths."

Bill Folk, 78, is another Catoosa County resident who had trouble getting an appointment. Folk's a cancer survivor and diabetic who has been eagerly awaiting the chance to get the vaccine. He said he's been frustrated after trying to call the toll-free number and instead being surprised by some kind of advertisement.

"That hotline just gave me a dang advertisement for Medic Alert," Folk said.

In a news conference Tuesday from the Capitol, Gov. Brian Kemp said he suspected some providers were holding onto doses for reserve.

"If this issue continues, the state will take possession of those doses," he said. "If it takes me firing up my pickup truck and doing it myself, so be it."

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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