You can, but should you shop for an earlier COVID shot?

·5 min read

Shopping for an earlier vaccine appointment away from home?

It’s a thing, and there’s not much stopping people in Ontario from doing it, but should they?

With mass vaccinations against COVID-19 kicking into gear across the province, and some areas ahead of others as they work through the age ranges of people being given their first shots, more than a few people are wondering about getting – and others booking – a shot in the nearest place where they can get one the fastest.

It turns out there's nothing stopping people from doing that. There is no requirement people wait their turn where they live. Still, health authorities aren't encouraging it, saying it's better to get vaccinated in your home region.

“Ontarians should get their vaccination within their public health region to help manage vaccine allocations,” Lindsay Davidson, a spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, wrote in an email.

The ministry did not respond to questions about whether a health unit, vaccine clinic or pharmacy can deny or cancel appointments for out-of-towners looking for shots.

While there are eligibility rules to get vaccinated against the virus in Ontario, geography isn't one of them, said Megan Cornwell, a spokesperson for Southwestern Public Health, the public health office for Elgin and Oxford counties.

“We encourage people to book close to home,” said Cornwell. “If we all book close to home, then other people can book close to home and they don’t have to travel as far.”

And there's one of the potential issues, especially in southern Ontario where most of the province's 15 million people live.

Many who live in one health unit have ties to another through work, cottages or families, so deciding to go where they can book a vaccination the fastest can be as simple as a familiar trip down the Highway 401.

There's no province-wide electronic health records system to track who is going where, and no requirement, either, that Ontarians get both their shots — the first and second doses — at the same place.

A year into the pandemic, one public health expert said it's not surprising some people are going where they can get their shots the fastest, but it would take many people doing so to cause real problems.

"There are a lot of issues with the fact that people are going wherever it seems they can get the vaccine soonest,” said Barry Pakes, a former associate medical officer of health in London and now an assistant professor at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana school of public health. “I don’t really blame people for doing that."

Pakes said vetting vaccination appointments by where people live would swamp already-strained health units that "have enough on their plate" and don't need that kind of policing on their "radar" as well.

Still, especially in the early going of vaccine rollouts, hopping around in search of an earlier shot may not be the wisest thing, he said, especially if it involves going to a smaller area with only so many shots available for its own residents.

“It potentially can be problematic,” he said. “It creates this imbalance.”

So far, Cornwell said, at her health unit there's no sign the open door on bookings is clogging the system with outsiders. Oxford-Elgin's vaccination clinics opened last week, and the "vast majority" of bookings came from that area, with only "a handful" from other regions, she said.

If someone is living in a second home or cottage when their eligibility comes up, they could book at the closest vaccine site available to them, she said.

Nearby Huron Perth Public Health also said there's no restriction on where an appointment can be booked, but recommends people do it within their own area.

Southwestern Ontario, for now, is a patchwork of who can get vaccinated by age ranges.

London, for example, is still working through those 80 and older along with health-care workers, while Chatham-Kent already is inoculating those 75 and older, one of the first areas of Ontario to do so.

But officials at Chatham-Kent Public Health, still using their own phone booking system and not the provincial portal, aren’t allowing any outsiders to snap up the coveted spots.

“Our staff are screening all those looking to book appointments to ensure that only Chatham-Kent residents are scheduled,” Jeff Moco, a spokesperson for the health unit, wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, Windsor-Essex was chosen as one of three pilot regions of Ontario for the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout in pharmacies, with shots available for those age 60 to 64.

The ministry said they “strongly encourage” pharmacies giving the vaccines to ensure residents live in their health unit.

Health units are receiving vaccine allocations based on population.

Pakes said vaccine shopping could make it more difficult for one region to know when it's finished vaccinating one priority group and move onto the next “if a whole bunch of people are getting the vaccine where they are not normally living."

Despite some variance in the early rollouts between health units, with some moving along faster than others, he said eligibility should never be “grossly off” from region to region.

Although it’s technically allowed, there’s still a moral and ethical element to vaccine shopping, and Pakes said he believes most Ontarians are “being reasonable and honest” about the bookings.

As the COVID-19 vaccine supply ramps up — Canada is expected to receive at least one million doses a week through the beginning of May — the issue should take care of itself, he said.

“Once there is enough vaccine for everybody . . . it just isn’t going to be an issue,” Pakes said.

Max Martin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press