A London, Ont., woman undergoing cancer treatment says she had to jump through hoops before she was able to book a second COVID-19 vaccination, even though she's exempt from the typical months-long wait for a second dose.
"There's no help navigating this system from anybody," said Barb MacQuarrie. "I've knocked on every door that I can possibly think of."
In February, MacQuarrie, 63, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer. She's currently in treatment and set to start chemotherapy later this month.
Keen to get vaccinated as soon as possible, she got her first dose of the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine on March 20 in Toronto as part of a pilot project to expand vaccination distribution to Ontario pharmacies.
The vaccine requires a second dose, which the manufacturer recommends be given anywhere from four to 12 weeks after the first shot.
In early March, the provincial and federal governments extended to four months the interval between the first and second doses of the two-dose COVID-19 vaccines approved in Canada. This was done to maximize the number of people getting a level of protection from an initial inoculation, with community spread rampant and vaccine supply limited.
However, there are exemptions for people with underlying health conditions to avoid the wait and get a second dose within the timeframe recommended by the manufacturer.
Ontario's Vaccine Clinical Advisory Group (VCAG) says cancer patients "receiving active treatment" are among those exempt from the extended vaccine interval.
Vaccine eligibility rules posted on the Middlesex-London Health Unit's website follow these guidelines.
From pharmacy to pharmacy
So with an exemption, MacQuarrie said, she was eligible for a second shot as early as April 17, but had a difficult time trying book an appointment.
The pharmacy in Toronto where she received the first shot wouldn't schedule her second, but said it would call her if the vaccine supply improves.
MacQuarrie said it was clear the pharmacist wasn't aware of the exemptions. She called other pharmacies and, at first, got similar responses.
She said there was also confusion among her care providers about the exemptions and how to get the second shot ahead of others waiting to get their first.
She tried to explain her quandary to the local health unit, but said she couldn't get through.
"I've spent every day last week calling the health unit multiple times," she said. "I could not even get to the point where I could be put on hold. I just got a message that call volumes were too high and to please hang up and call again."
Dr. Alex Summers, associate medical officer of health for the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU), said people with exemptions can can book their second appointment when they get their first shot.
While he couldn't comment on the situation MacQuarrie faced with the pharmacy, Summers said operators of the COVID-19 booking phone line for vaccination clinics (226-289-3560) are aware of the exemptions that allow cancer patients to schedule a second vaccination without the longer wait time.
If I were exposed, I would in turn be exposing everyone at the cancer clinic at the same time. - Barb MacQuarrie
The potential delay in getting a second shot was a concern for MacQuarrie. She lives with her son, who works in a front-line job.
"If I were exposed, I would in turn be exposing everyone at the cancer clinic at the same time," she said.
Finally, a London pharmacist on Monday told MacQuarrie she qualifies for an exemption and offered to help her schedule a second dose. She doesn't have an appointment yet; getting one depends on everything from the vaccine supply to number of other people trying to make bookings.
Angeline Ng of the Ontario Pharmacists Association (OPA) admitted the program to distribute the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine in pharmacies has not been perfect. Ng said her group sent out detailed information to pharmacies informing them about the program. However, she said, not every pharmacy is an OPA member and it's possible messages were missed in the rapid rollout.
MacQuarrie said she's told her story to CBC News as a cautionary tale to ensure pharmacists, health-care providers and cancer patients know about exemptions.
"I had to do a lot of research and advocacy for myself to get this far," she said. "That will not be possible for many or even most cancer patients. We still have a problem that urgently needs a solution."