The Cape Breton University Students' Union is helping some international students by booking COVID-19 vaccine appointments for them.
Students from other countries are not issued a health card until they have been in Nova Scotia for 13 months, so they cannot book an appointment online.
Union president Madlyn O'Brien said international students can book by phone, but that is often a huge barrier.
"Many students don't have many minutes on their cellphones," she said. "Many max out at 60 [minutes] and they call the booking line and the wait time is about 80 minutes."
Some international students are working multiple jobs or taking summer courses, and some also face language issues and that can create anxiety, O'Brien told CBC Radio's Information Morning Cape Breton.
To help alleviate those barriers, the students' union launched what it calls a secure booking program on June 22.
O'Brien said phone bookings require a name, address, phone number and email address, so the union takes that information from students who wish to participate, and then the four union executive members take turns calling it in.
"Once they get their email with the appointment confirmation, they are able to reschedule it to a time that works for them through the booking portal," she said.
It's unclear how many international students have had difficulties booking vaccine appointments, but O'Brien said the university's administration initially flagged the problem for the union's attention.
"We don't have a specific number, but when we were approached from the university, they said that it is an alarmingly high number," she said.
Advocacy is one of the union's mandates, O'Brien said.
"The students are willing to get their vaccines," she said. "They know that it's the right thing to do to protect their community. They were just blocked by the provincial government by these various barriers."
The union has been pushing the provincial government for some time to have MSI cards issued sooner to international students, she said, partly because it would help them get access to health care and partly because it would help the university attract more students.
International students in Ontario are not eligible for provincial health cards, but those in all other provinces receive theirs faster than those in Nova Scotia, said O'Brien.
In New Brunswick, international students are given a card as soon as they arrive and that includes any dependants they bring with them, she said.
'It's simply unfair,' O'Brien says
"We just think it's unacceptable," O'Brien said. "It's simply unfair that they are not offered the same health care we are."
The university's success in international recruitment helped Cape Breton Island increase its population in 2019 for the first time in more than 20 years, but the number of students from other countries dropped last year due to the pandemic.
O'Brien said if large numbers of students need help booking vaccines, the union will look for volunteers or hire people to help call in appointments.
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