N.B. vaccine site let ineligible residents mistakenly book appointments

·5 min read
Heather Shuve says she was allowed to mistakenly sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine on the Government of New Brunswick's signup portal. (CBC - image credit)
Heather Shuve says she was allowed to mistakenly sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine on the Government of New Brunswick's signup portal. (CBC - image credit)

Heather Shuve couldn't believe her good luck.

This week, the 62-year-old Saint John woman managed to snag an appointment for a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Exhibition Park on April 9.

Turns out it was too good to be true.

Something didn't seem quite right, and when Shuve checked, she found out she was not eligible for the shot she booked easily through the province's website.

She was asked to cancel, but only after she sent a message to the government's COVID-19 Facebook page.

"I know of many other people, many other people, who have done exactly the same thing I have done," she said in an interview.

"I guess if you're not proactive in checking things out, the likelihood is there that people are going to show up to their scheduled confirmed appointment and be disappointed, and have taken a spot from somebody who needs it."

Others also allowed to mistakenly sign up

That's exactly right, according to provincial spokesperson Shawn Berry.

He says Shuve and others mistakenly signed up for clinics for people with chronic or complex medical conditions and they're being asked to cancel their appointments.

Heather Shuve says the signup portal made no indication that she wasn't eligible for the vaccine despite entering her date of birth and Medicare number.
Heather Shuve says the signup portal made no indication that she wasn't eligible for the vaccine despite entering her date of birth and Medicare number.(Government of New Brunswick)

The province is emailing anyone who signed up online, he said.

"Someone who has scheduled one of those appointments is taking up a spot for people who are considered medically vulnerable. If they do not meet the eligibility group criteria, they will be turned away on the day of their appointment."

Shuve provided her date of birth and Medicare number before continuing to the page that let her choose her time, date and vaccine and skipped past a box asking for a code given to priority groups.

"It's not clear what I did wrong," Shuve said. "Somewhere it should have caught me as not being eligible to book these other spots."

So far, only people aged 75 or older from the general, low-risk population are supposed to be booking appointments, and in most cases they're to do it through pharmacies.

The site for clinics run by the two regional health authorities is meant mainly for people from designated groups.

But this week the province had to pivot quickly to shift vaccination plans because of new guidance that the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine should only be given to people aged 55 and older.

AstraZeneca vaccine clinic adds to confusion

On Tuesday Shuve was watching a livestream of the provincial government's COVID-19 briefing when Health Minister Dorothy Shephard said an AstraZeneca clinic for people 55 and up from the general population would take place April 1 at Saint John's Exhibition Park.

Shephard told people to sign up at the website, and Shuve leapt into action.

Health Minister Dorothy Shephard announced Tuesday the province would be holding a vaccine clinic for persons above 55 to specifically receive doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Health Minister Dorothy Shephard announced Tuesday the province would be holding a vaccine clinic for persons above 55 to specifically receive doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine.(Terry Roberts/CBC)

She looked up the provincial press release, which did not include the April 1 date but did have a link to the sign-up page.

After typing in her postal code, date of birth and Medicare number, she was offered April 7 as the first available date and took a slot at 1:50 p.m.

"It needed to be clearer that the only date I could select was April 1," she said.

"I don't know where it went wrong and I guess that's what I'm trying to find out."

She said she was also offered a choice between Pfizer and AstraZeneca, and opted for Pfizer.

Shuve also told several friends about the opportunity and they made bookings as well.

But late in the afternoon, when she saw a post that the April 1 clinic was fully booked, she began having doubts about her appointment and sent a message through Facebook.

"Today's eligibility for those 55 and older was for appointments on April 1 in Saint John using the AstraZeneca vaccine," the province replied.

"If you signed up for Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna appointment or another date, you need to cancel your appointment."

Worry those expecting vaccine will get turned away

Shuve says she knows provincial officials are coping with a sudden overhaul of their vaccination plan and that there will be rough spots.

In fact, she says that's why she wasn't surprised when she found all those dates and times and vaccine choices on the website.

"I thought okay, maybe this is just the way it is because this is new and this is different."

But she says people who don't inform themselves as well as she does may not realize they're ineligible until they arrive at Exhibition Park and are turned away. "They'll be left behind, potentially."

The Thursday clinic in Saint John will administer doses to 240 people, and the province plans more 55-and-up AstraZeneca clinics to make use of 30,900 more doses arriving this week.

"I know they have far more important things to worry about than me not getting an appointment I would have liked to have had," Shuve says. "But it's flawed and it needs to be clearer or it needs to be changed."

Berry said the province is "taking steps to address this issue so it does not occur again in the future."