Without a central booking system for COVID-19 vaccine appointments, Toronto hospitals have scrambled to ramp up their own clinics for those 80 and older, but the patchwork approach has left at least one of the city’s harder hit neighbourhoods without access.
Rexdale, an Etobicoke neighbourhood that’s part of the city’s hard-hit northwest corner, where there’s a large population of essential workers and people living with extended family — conditions for COVID to thrive — has so far been overlooked.
The area is “kind of in no man’s land” for 80+ vaccine bookings, said Althea Martin-Risden, director of health promotion at Rexdale Community Health Centre.
The city is not yet booking appointments for mass vaccination clinics. But in the meantime, hospitals and Ontario Family Health Teams have been developing their own appointment and registration systems.
On Monday, they launched https://vaccineto.ca, a website that pulls these individual links into one central site. There are links for downtown hospitals, Sunnybrook, North York and some clinics in Scarborough. However, Martin-Risden said Rexdale is not part of the catchment area for either Humber River Hospital or William Osler, which is so far only booking at its Brampton and Mississauga hospitals.
Osler spokesperson Jim Schembri said in an email that the hospital system is “currently working with the Ministry of Health and appropriate Public Health partners to devise a plan to administer COVID-19 vaccines to eligible Etobicoke residents.”
More information will be available when the plans are finalized, he said.
Martin-Risden said she’s hearing “frustration” from 80+ community members and their families that they can’t book appointments yet. Those residents and Indigenous adults are all part of the province’s ongoing Phase 1 of vaccination, and a top priority after groups like long-term-care residents and front-line health-care workers.
“People are ready,” she said. “It’s not hesitancy we’re fighting, the frustration is around access.”
The Star’s Jennifer Yang reported last month on a recent brief by the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table that found postal code, as well as age, should be taken into account for vaccine prioritization as certain neighbourhoods have a much higher COVID risk. The province announced last week that 13 public health units (including Toronto and Peel) will get additional vaccine doses (up to 920,000) to target hot spots, in Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout. That starts in April.
A province-wide web portal for vaccine appointment booking is planned to go live on March 15 along with a call centre. It uses the same software as California, where the L.A. Times has reported wealthier, whiter neighbourhoods, such as Beverly Hills, have had higher rates of vaccination, and some seniors have struggled with the technology. Many Ontario health units are racing ahead using booking systems on their own websites in the meantime.
The city announced Monday that it would be developing an “interim registration and booking system” for vaccine slots to bridge the few days until the provincial site is ready.
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“It will operate for a number of days up until the point of March 15, when the overarching provincial scheduling system comes online,” said Toronto fire Chief Matthew Pegg, the head of Toronto’s Immunization Task Force.
“Our clinics will be fully supported by the provincial booking system.”
Asked about variation between the approach of Toronto hospitals (some are booking 80+ and Indigenous adults, others just 80+), medical officer of health Dr. Eileen de Villa told reporters some hospitals have better relationships with providers or certain groups.
“I think it’s just a reflection of a divvying up if you will the responsibilities across the many different partners so we can get the job done as quickly as possible, as efficiently as possible and as effectively as possible,” she said.
Three of the nine planned mass vaccine clinics — the Metro Toronto Convention Centre downtown, Scarborough Town Centre and Toronto Congress Centre in Etobicoke — will open March 17, ahead of schedule, said Pegg. Residents 80 and up across the city will be able to book appointments at them through the upcoming city appointment system.
But there are also questions, Martin-Risden said, about transit for the Rexdale community, as the Etobicoke site is not walkable, and requires at least one bus ride, depending on where people live.
“We have concerns with access, getting people there, transportation, getting seniors 80+ on a bus,” she said, adding they’re working with partners to try to find solutions.
They’re also worried about seniors who don’t have friends or family members to help them navigate web portals. Some don’t have computers at home or internet access, which becomes “another barrier,” she said.
“You have to click here and click there, and for many seniors if you don’t have support from a family member or a friend that’s not as easy as it sounds.”
Mobile, pop-up or door-to-door clinics would help, she said, but she hasn’t heard details yet on where those might be. The city announced Monday there will be at least 49 clinics run by hospitals and Ontario Health Teams and 46 by community health centres, as well as 249 operated by pharmacies, but didn’t reveal locations.
Martin-Risden said residents would also like to know the plan for seniors who are housebound.
“We’re going to try and put in place as many solutions to getting information out to our community around the rollout of the vaccine.”
Earlier in the pandemic, there were barriers to testing in the neighbourhood, she added. “We don’t want to the same thing to happen now that the vaccine is here.”
May Warren is a Toronto-based breaking news reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @maywarren11
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