Three, and now possibly only two, of the seven health units in Northern Ontario are using independent vaccine booking systems and in those cases, COVID-19 vaccines are currently available only to their local residents aged 80 years or older.
The three are Algoma Public Health representing Sault Ste. Marie, Blind River, Elliot Lake and smaller communities; the Porcupine Health Unit, representing Timmins and other smaller towns; and Public Health Sudbury and Districts, representing Sudbury, Espanola, Manitoulin Island and Chapleau. To be accurate, Algoma Public Health has made changes in the past 24 hours to accept 75-year-olds.
Across the rest of the North, residents who are aged 75 years and older can book vaccinations through the Ontario Public Health vaccination appointment system. This includes the North Bay Parry Sound Health Unit, the North West Health Unit (Dryden, Fort Frances, Kenora, Sioux Lookout and others), the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, and the Timiskaming Health Unit (Temiskaming Shores, Kirkland Lake).
This approach has created some confusion for Northern Ontario residents who have been waiting to get their vaccinations, especially since it was announced that as of March 15, the province was kicking off a new booking system. Appointments were being accepted for residents 80 and older that day.
That caused consternation among residents who believed they could use the new booking system. Many tried and were rejected.
As recently as Wednesday afternoon, the issue was concerning to Thunder Bay Mayor Bill Mauro who commented on the frustration in his city over vaccine availability and the confusion with the online vaccine booking system.
“This week the Mayor’s Office has received a large volume of calls from frustrated City of Thunder Bay residents who experienced difficulties using the Provincial Vaccine Booking System, as well as from those who expressed their concern over what they perceived to be a lack of available vaccine in Thunder Bay,” said a news release from Mauro’s office.
The March 15 kickoff might have given the impression that all regions of Ontario were moving forward, but no one at PHSD cleared up the confusion locally until Sudbury.com asked for details.
"We will announce when clinics and appointment details for our service area are also available through the provincial booking system," said the reply from the Sudbury health unit.
Until then residents were told to use the local booking system.
Prior to the March 15 provincial announcement, PHSD had issued a news release on March 5, advising that pre-registration was in place for adults 80 years and older in the Sudbury health unit jurisdiction. Part of that announcement said that because of the limited supply of vaccines, a lottery system would be applied for booking actual appointments. The booking system was administered locally. Then on March 19, the province announced it was accelerating the vaccine rollout to include residents that were 75 and older.
"The progress we are making on our Vaccine Distribution Plan demonstrates what can be done when we unleash the full potential of Team Ontario," said Premier Doug Ford that day.
As might be expected, residents across Northern Ontario began logging in online and calling the toll-free telephone number to make an appointment. Again, there was confusion as residents believed they, too, would be included, because "the Ontario government is expanding appointments through its online booking system to individuals aged 75 and over" according to the news release.
To make things more complex, PHSD has an online vaccine playbook, which it regularly encourages the public to reference. In the playbook, there are vaccine clinic scenarios where persons aged 75 and over are included. Nowhere in the entire playbook is there a reference for anyone aged 80 and older.
As things turned out, the provincial announcement last week that appointments were being booked for individuals 75 and older did not include those living in the jurisdictions of the Algoma, Sudbury or Porcupine health units.
On March 22, PHSD responded with a news release saying the most recent provincial announcement did not apply to the Sudbury district.
"On Friday, the Ontario Government announced that its online booking system would open on March 22 for individuals aged 75 and over. This did not signal the start of eligibility for this age group across the province. Public Health Sudbury & Districts anticipates clinics for this age group to begin next week. Information about how to book appointments will be issued in the coming days."
There was also confusion in Sault Ste. Marie this week when residents accessed the Algoma Public Health (APH) website which said registrations would be accepted for people aged 75 and older, but the applications were being rejected.
“Not all public health units are using the provincial booking system. At this moment, appointments for adults under 80 are not yet open for booking in Algoma. We expect to make appointment booking available to 75+ soon, once all Phase 1 priority groups in Algoma have been offered the opportunity for immunization,” said an email statement from Dr. Jennifer Loo, the APH medical officer of health.
“APH will release more information on additional eligible groups for COVID-19 immunization later this week,” Loo said in an email today.
Algoma Public Health, as of March 23, reported it will be accepting registrations from those 75 and older.
As it stands now, there is no firm indication when all Northern Ontario Health Units expect to be matched up with the Ontario vaccination booking system.
PHSD has said on March 22 it anticipates clinics for persons aged 75 and older will be available "next week" but more complete information would be released "in the coming days".
The most recent information from the Porcupine Health Unit was a notice on its Facebook page that a vaccination clinic would be held this Friday for individuals aged 80 and older.
PHU’s vaccine website also indicates that it will be providing vaccines in the third and fourth weeks of March to “older adults 80+”.
Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com, covering health care in Northern Ontario. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the federal government.
Len Gillis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com