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These students were promised vaccines at their Toronto school. They lined up before dawn but turned out to ineligible


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These students were promised vaccines at their Toronto school. They lined up before dawn but turned out to ineligible

On the same day the province announced it would expand COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to Ontarians age 12 to 17, around 90 teenagers aged 16 and 17 were denied a jab at a clinic hosted by Michael Garron Hospital at a Scarborough school gym.

The Birchmount Park Collegiate Institute advertised the clinic to its students 16-plus living in hot spots M1J, M1K, M1M and M1L through flyers, emails, on its website and social media, and during Zoom classes, students say. They began lining up to receive the shots at 5 a.m. — some even camped overnight — only to learn they couldn’t get them.

“I just feel neglected by my community, my district, my school board, my city and my government,” said Grade 11 student Abdullah El-Naid, who joined the line at 6 a.m. “It’s one of the worst feelings ever.”

Less than 24 hours before the clinic opened, families were emailed by the school, asking them to mark the event in their calendar.

Wolf Klassen, vice-president of program support at Michael Garron Hospital, said the clinic at Birchmount is being conducted with Moderna supply, which has not been approved for those under 18 by Health Canada, and acknowledged changes can occur up until 24 hours before mobile clinics are set to open.

Ontario announced Thursday it’s preparing to administer the Pfizer vaccine to 12- to 17-year-olds, beginning the week of May 31. David Jensen, a health ministry spokesperson, said Ontarians must be 18 or older to reserve through the provincial booking system, other than some medical exemptions to the rule. He added some public health units are allowing under-18s to book an appointment “under their own exemptions.”

In Halton Region for example, residents 16 and up who can’t work from home can book an appointment. That is not the case in Toronto.

TDSB spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz said the school only found out Thursday morning that Moderna would be delivered to the clinic.

“We were under the understanding the clinic would be available for 16 and over, but there was a miscommunication, and in the a.m., Moderna was delivered.”

For El-Naid, the vaccine means added security for his at-risk father, who has had six operations to treat his thyroid cancer, lives with diabetes and has high blood pressure.

“If I give him the disease, I know for a fact he’ll be on a ventilator. That’s why I took it so seriously when I got that opportunity. I wanted it so bad, and it was just stripped away from me.”

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Another student, Brendan Corrigan, 16, pitched a tent near the school around 11 p.m. Wednesday. He’s an essential worker at a Lowe’s garden centre. While he works outside, he said he would “feel a lot safer” if he had the vaccine. He said he braved a cold night to improve his chances of getting a jab.

“It really felt like it was all for nothing … We just want to be able to have a normal life again,” Corrigan said. “We were so excited to wake up in the morning to get the vaccine … we had hope.”

Corrigan’s mom is a nurse, and he said part of the reason he camped out is because his mom is working even harder than usual due to how overburdened hospitals are.

“She’s always in the hospital. I don’t want her working all the time. I wish everyone can get the vaccine.”

Grade 11 student Phoenix Grant was one of the first to arrive, joining the line at 5:30 a.m. By 8, she counted around 120 people, about 95 of them Birchmount students age 16 and 17. She said while many in line were young, that doesn’t mean they’re not touched by the virus.

“Our lives are very much affected by COVID-19, because we are the students and children working in the grocery stores,” she said. “Those are the companies that are essential.”

Grant said a nurse at the clinic told students around 7:45 a.m. that vaccines would not be available to those under 18. The teenagers let the adults move forward in the line until the school’s principal, Anton Skerritt, provided clarity.

“Mr. Skerritt talked to us and said there was a huge miscommunication between the Ministry of Health and the hospital and that he’s really sorry,” Grant said. “We were all really annoyed, because we woke up so early to get (vaccines) and then it didn’t happen. There’s half-truths being told.”

Skerritt did not provide comment, but in a letter to students, parents and guardians, he apologized for the “miscommunication of information” and for any inconvenience it may have caused to those who visited Thursday morning.

Grant, 16, lives with her father, who has respiratory issues and had spinal surgery under one year ago. He’s still recovering and at a high risk for COVID. Every time she steps out of her house — to go to the grocery store or even pick up her mail — is a big risk, she said.

“If I were to bring (COVID-19) home, because of all his health issues, I would lose my parent. I don’t want to lose my dad,” she said. “My mom lives a couple hours away. He’s my support system, so it means the most to me that I’m safe and he’s safe. Because at the end of the day, we’re all that we have.”

Maria Sarrouh is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]

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