Ontarians hit with random vaccine cancellations as booking system malfunctions under demand

Ontarians hit with random vaccine cancellations as booking system malfunctions under demand

After battling the province's much-maligned vaccine booking system Monday morning, many Ontarians walked away from their computer screens, appointment in hand, with the knowledge that they'll soon be one step closer to safety from COVID-19.

And many didn't.

The Ford government allowed any adult in a hot spot to book a vaccine appointment through the provincial booking system Monday morning, leading to technical glitches, hours-long wait times, random cancellations, appointments in faraway places, and confusion about whether people actually live in a "hot spot" or not.

Bookings opened up slightly before the announced time of 8 a.m., which meant that many who logged on right on the hour faced a queue of tens of thousands of people, while those who checked 10 minutes or so before were able to snap up appointments quickly.

The rest were left with queues that stretched on for hours — and even if they got to the end of the line, many were met with a message that there were no spots left.

Some of those who persevered were eventually rewarded, as more spots were added to the system throughout the day.

After first seeing the "no spots available" message after an hour-long wait, Toronto writer Marites Sison told QP Briefing her daughter was finally able to book a spot for May 31, after lining up for four-and-a-half hours.

But for some, booking a shot wasn't the end, as shortly afterward they received emails letting them know their appointments have been cancelled, with no reason given.

While some have managed to re-book — sometimes for weeks after their original appointment — others haven't.

"I was able to speak with an adviser but by that time there were no spots available left," Toronto product designer Jhoza Tenorio told QP Briefing. "I wasn’t given any information about how long to wait and why my appointment was cancelled in the first place. Hope this hasn’t happened to anyone else."

It had.

York Region resident Duaa Zahra said she called Ontario Health after receiving a cancellation email, but that they weren't sure why her appointment was axed.

She said the representative told her the appointment may have been scrapped because she booked at a centre that wasn't in her region.

"Which begs the question, if there’s only a specific location where I can get vaccinated, why is the portal showing me multiple location options? Both my parents got vaccinated in locations outside their postal code and had no problem," she said.

Zahra said the representative said she couldn't book an appointment for her because there were no more available in York Region. So she rejoined the online queue — "which is still incredibly long" — and will try again for a site farther away, though she would prefer not to face another cancellation.

Some Ontarians didn't even get that far.

Many reported being locked out of the booking system after entering "incorrect" health information too many times. The error message told them to try again after midnight, or try calling the phone booking line.

Joe, a Torontonian in the M6E hot spot who didn't want to give his full name, was hit with this error message after lining up online for two hours. He said he was able to find an appointment for May 22 after waiting for an hour and a half on the phone.

"I wish I didn’t have to wait so long so my appointment would've been sooner. My area doesn’t get any pop-ups even though it’s a hot spot," said Joe, whose son has autism.

"I’m terrified to even get sick from this. I had pneumonia a few years back and taking care of him was very hard," he said. "I’m just worried about the new strains and how unorganized our local government seems to be."

Torontonian Janet Apea said she went through the same experience and was able to book after an hour more on the phone — though the agent entered the wrong email address and couldn't change it.

"So that was frustrating," she said. "[I] did receive the text though."

Many haven't had the opportunity to try their luck with the system.

Volunteers have signed up some who were unable to do it themselves — such as warehouse workers, a population that has been especially hard hit by the third wave — but demand for help has so far outstripped supply.

And some people in postal codes designated as hot spots by their municipalities — but not by the province — were confused about whether they could book appointments.

Some have found success in using their local public health unit's phone booking line, but others report being dropped, hung up on or hearing busy signals, despite in some cases calling literally hundreds of times.

Health Minister Christine Elliott said the government is "very pleased about" the booking system.

"I'm sorry that people are having some hiccups, I guess, with the booking system, but I would encourage them to try again. We've already had over 73,000 appointments made this morning, just between 8 o'clock and 10 o'clock," she said.

There were issues when the online booking system first went live and the new ones should also be ironed out soon, Elliott said.

“If you’re not able to book it today, please try tomorrow," she said.

Elliott said people living in hot spots as defined by their cities, but not the province, will have to book through their municipal systems.

It wasn't the first time the province has inflicted mass confusion among Ontarians after expanding vaccine availability.

The opposition said it could've been avoided.

"I think today's failure is yet another example of a government that simply didn't do the job, didn’t do the planning early enough, and continues to fail in the urgency of getting a seamless system in place for people needing vaccines," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said.

Liberal health critic John Fraser noted that the company that built Nova Scotia's user-friendly booking system is from Ontario.

"They work with the provincial government. People raving about the system in Nova Scotia, and they didn't even call them," he said.

Overall, "the level of frustration is incredible," he said. "I mean, just look at it. If you're crowdsourcing solutions online — we're the biggest province in Canada, the economic engine. How come they couldn't figure this out?"

Green Leader Mike Schreiner said the booking portal should've launched earlier.

"Who will forget General Hillier saying it would've been nice to have it in place by March 1, but we really didn't need it," he said. "And I think because the government was so late in delivering a plan and a portal, we're now seeing the challenges associated with the lack of planning."

Concerns were also raised about the number of people who would be travelling outside their region to get vaccinated, since spots in downtown Toronto filled up quickly, and many resorted to booking shots in places like Etobicoke or Mississauga.

Horwath called it "risky," saying it makes no sense to make people travel around the Greater Toronto Area to get vaccinated when there's a stay-at-home order in place.

Elliott said the pilot project to deliver Pfizer shots through some pharmacies in Toronto and Peel could open up more possibilities in those areas soon. She said Pfizer doses will be coming in "much bigger quantities" this month.

The health minister also said the scheduled increase in vaccine supply could mean Ontarians may not have to wait the full four months between their first and second doses. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization has also expressed hope that the delay will be shortened.

"And if we are able to do that, then we will be able to contact people. We are prepared to do that manually," Elliott said.

Horwath expressed frustration that the government appears to only be preparing for this now.

"The problem that this government has had is that they have not planned in advance all the way along. They have always been playing catch-up. They’ve been flying by the seat of their pants," Horwath said.

Jack Hauen


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