Ontario pharmacy COVID-19 vaccine pilot ramping up in three regions

·4 min read

TORONTO — Ontarians between the ages of 60 and 64 rushed to snap up COVID-19 vaccine appointments on Thursday as a pilot project offering shots in pharmacies picked up steam, despite some early communications hiccups.

Oxford-AstraZeneca shots are being offered to eligible Ontarians at 325 pharmacies in Toronto, Windsor and Kingston.

The Ontario Pharmacists Association said the program, which is set to launch broadly on Friday after more shots arrive, is off to a "rolling start," with some sites administering vaccines since Wednesday.

"It's been overwhelming, the response," CEO Justin Bates said in an interview. "I think people are excited, they're anxious, they want to get in."

A line stretched down the block Thursday outside an east Toronto Shoppers Drug Mart offering vaccines on a walk-in basis.

Caroline Ham said she spent all week on various websites in an effort to get on a vaccination list. She walked down to the pharmacy on Thursday thinking she might have better luck trying to sign up in person.

"I couldn't get through on the phone and then I saw this long lineup and eureka," she said.

Though thrilled to be getting immunized herself, Ham raised concerns that the province's handling of the vaccination process might make access unequal for everyone.

Florence Taylor called the pharmacy Thursday morning to ask about getting vaccinated and was told to "just come," with the caveat that there would be a wait, she said.

Taylor said the provincial rollout has been confusing, with 60- to 64-year-olds now able to get their shots before some older residents receive theirs. She wanted to be vaccinated to protect her 84-year-old mother, who hadn't yet received the shot.

"I don't understand but you've got to do what you've got to do," she said.

Others on the cusp of the age limit for the program reported confusion and cancelled appointments after bookings opened on Wednesday.

The Ministry of Health has since clarified that anyone who has been, or will be, between the ages of 60 and 64 in 2021 is eligible. The province is offering the Oxford-AstraZeneca shots to that age group based on federal advice not to offer it to those over 65.

Bates said that initial communication error about eligibility was a challenge, but participating pharmacies are being contacted with the clarification to ensure people get their appointments.

Health Minister Christine Elliott also acknowledged the confusion on Thursday.

“We are working with pharmacies so that they understand that we are prioritizing people aged 60 to 64 in pharmacies, but that if you turned 59 … (or) you will turn 60, perhaps in September you can still be given the vaccine,” she said.

Bates also acknowledged the challenge of busy phone lines, and encouraged people to check online for booking options before calling in, as booking systems will vary by location.

Rexall and Costco pharmacies had online webpages set up for bookings, while Loblaw Public Relations said Thursday people should contact participating Loblaw and Shoppers Drug Mart pharmacies for appointments, though some locations are doing walk-in appointments.

Opposition politicians have raised concern that the pharmacy pilot was moving too slowly to get the 165,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca doses out before they expire on April 2.

But Bates said Thursday that based on capacity at the sites and public interest, pharmacies are on track to use the doses before that date, and meeting demand might be more challenging than using the supply.

"I don't think we're going to have any issue moving those shots into arms between now and the end of the month," he said.

That tight expiry window was one factor behind the regions selected for participation in the pilot, Bates said, amid concerns that some virus hot spots, including Thunder Bay in northern Ontario, aren't part of the pilot.

He said the Ministry of Health made the final call and selection for the batch participants was made based on readiness to move vaccines quickly.

Work is underway to determine the next regions the program will expand to, he said, with an eventual goal of offering vaccines at locations across the province.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said she has been watching coverage of the confusion surrounding the rollout in pharmacies.

"People in Ontario are unhappy with the way that the government has messed up this rollout, and not only has it been an ill-prepared plan, but it's an ill-delivered plan,” she said.

- with files from Shawn Jeffords

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press