Ontarians eager to book their booster shots on Monday morning were disappointed, as a surge in demand for a third COVID-19 vaccine forced local public health units to temporarily disable their booking portals, while others couldn’t offer appointments until February.
The scramble to secure an appointment was dubbed by many online as the “hunger games” — a repeat of the frustrations felt seven months earlier when Ontario first rolled out vaccines to people over 18.
At 8 a.m. Monday, the province opened its vaccination portal to those age 18 to 49 — around five million Ontarians — as it deals with a rapid increase of daily infections due to the Omicron variant. But many reported waiting over an hour, only to find out there are no appointments available in their area.
By 3 p.m., around 186,000 appointments had been booked through the provincial booking system. That doesn’t include thousands of appointments booked by public health units, pharmacies, primary care and hospitals.
Still, throughout the province, many were unable to secure a spot.
In Toronto, people waiting on the portal were told to book through Toronto Public Health, but there were no slots available. Mayor John Tory said the provincial booking system had more than 84,000 adult vaccination appointments in Toronto on Monday, through Feb. 19. The city said it will update people Tuesday on when more appointments will be offered.
Demand was so high in other regions that some public health units, including Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph, Region of Waterloo and Huron Perth, temporarily disabled their booking portals. Ottawa Public Health did the same, tweeting within an hour of the portal opening that all available booster appointments were taken. It had warned Sunday that people would likely find “no or very few booster appointments available, but we are actively working to increase capacity.”
Meanwhile, York Region says its current focus is on getting jabs into those over 50 and other vulnerable individuals, and is not offering walk-in appointments for 18-49s, fuelling some frustration online.
Patrick Casey, York’s director of communications, said the decision was made due to “high demand” and that residents can still book through pharmacies or their primary care provider. But GTA pharmacies have also been swamped by the surge in those seeking a third shot.
Adding to the confusion were reports of the provincial booking system opening hours earlier than officially scheduled. Christine Odunlami of Toronto, who has asthma, was able to log on at 2:45 a.m., but was still only able to secure a booster for late January.
The scramble to get vaccinated has intensified due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. On Monday, Ontario reported 3,784 cases of COVID-19 — a 115 per cent increase in the average number of cases from last week. The province’s positivity rate is 9.7 per cent.
As a result, the demand for vaccines has been “historical,” a provincial spokesperson told the Star, and has led to a dwindling supply of the Pfizer vaccine. Ontario said it requested four million doses of Pfizer from the federal government for January, which have yet to be approved. Meanwhile, the province will be giving out Moderna at many clinics for people 30 and older.
The demand led leaders in GTA and Hamilton to issue a statement urging the Ontario government “to incentivize more pharmacies and doctors to offer vaccinations,” and to launch a province-wide campaign to recruit retired health-care workers to join local vaccine efforts.
“As we continue to increase our daily capacity, individual public health units are actively working to add appointments to the booking system on an ongoing basis,” said Alexandra Hilkene, spokesperson for Minister of Health Christine Elliott. “Public health units will continue to keep the public informed as more appointments go live on the provincial booking system.”
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On Friday, nearly 169,000 doses were administered in the province, with plans in the coming days to ramp up efforts to between 200,000 and 300,000 doses a day. Prior to December, uptake for booster shots had been slow, with only 9.6 per cent of eligible Ontarians getting a booster by mid-November.
With the need for boosters rapidly increasing, Hilkene said the province encourages Ontarians to check regularly for vaccine availability through other channels like pharmacies, primary care settings and walk-in clinics. The city of Toronto also encouraged people to check vaccine availability with their family doctor. Ontario has no centralized booking system for all vaccine options.
Ava Berry of Toronto was among those who used Ontario’s vaccination portal to secure appointments for herself and two brothers — in mid-February.
“I found this morning to be a little bit stressful,” said Berry, who’s the most tech-savvy of her siblings. “It’s definitely been a little bit of a scramble trying to get (appointments) for my whole family.”
She can’t imagine how challenging booking is for those without computer access, or who can’t easily navigate the online system, saying “it is a little tricky and finicky.”
The 22-year-old was ready when the portal officially opened at 8. After 40 minutes in an online queue, she worked swiftly on a laptop and monitor, cutting and pasting all the necessary information — for instance, health card, date of last dose, postal code — to secure the appointments. While waiting, she also tried pharmacies, but those were booked and had wait lists.
She said they’ll use the February appointments as a “backup,” noting she and her brothers will try to get boosted beforehand at a pop-up clinic.
Berry was sick with COVID during the first wave of the pandemic — she felt “knocked down,” “winded” and “extremely fatigued” — and believes boosters are key to getting “back to normal life.”
In Mississauga, Joanne Balsamo has been the “vaccine hunter” for her family and uses four devices for her sleuthing: an iPhone, iPad and two laptops. She’s older than 50 and has already received her booster, so she spent Monday morning seeking appointments for her two sons, in their 20s. On the provincial portal, two locations came up, each about 30 kilometres away, but that’s too far. And the first available appointments were for mid-February, too long of a wait.
“I didn’t end up booking them,” said Balsamo. “The appointments just weren’t readily available … So I’ve got my kids on all kinds of waiting lists at drugstores.”
She worries that if it were up to her sons to book their appointments, they wouldn’t. So she’s found pharmacies easy to get to, given their work schedules, and hopes they get called well before February.
“I’m just trying to make it doable, so they don’t say ‘forget it, I can’t take half a day off’ to (get boosted),” said Balsamo, adding she’s concerned that booking challenges may deter some people from getting their booster.
With files from the Star’s David Rider, Olivia Bowden and The Canadian Press
Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74
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