Concerns flagged over Ontario’s online vaccine appointment portal

The province announced they’ll have a call centre and a web portal for booking COVID vaccinations. Adrian Ghobrial with the exclusive look at the website, and why its perplexing name has health experts scratching their heads.

By Adrian Ghobrial

The province says a new online booking system and service desk will soon be available for people to book an appointment to get their COVID-19 vaccine shot. While no specific timeline was announced, health care officials are already concerned when it comes to how easily accessible the online portal will be for Ontarians.

CityNews got an exclusive look at the website, which is currently titled the COVax ON Patient Portal, and spoke with at least three doctors immersed in the fight against COVID-19 who say the name alone is confusing begin with.

“I think ‘keep it simple stupid’ – the KISS principle – is probably what we want to aim for here,” said Dr. Nathan Stall of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and a member of the COVID-19 Science Advisory Table in Ontario. “It’s already confusing because COVAX is the international vaccination sharing program.”

“I think a kindergarten person could probably answer that question and say to you, that is not clear, that is confusing,” said Professor Jillian Kohler of the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto.

“I find it very confusing,” echoed Kerry Bowman, a bioethicist at the University of Toronto. “If I was fishing online I would not even stop at a link like that because I wouldn’t even know what that was.”

When asked about the name and possible confusion, provincial officials at a government briefing – including Premier Doug Ford – struggled to come up with an explanation.

“In terms of the online portal, it is another pathway for Ontario residents to be able to get immediate information and book their appointments so they know where the sites are and which is convenient,” said Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, who pointed out it will not be the only way for people to book vaccine appointments.

“Thirty-four health units have submitted their plans and they’re all unique.”

Aside from the name and being able to easily find it online, no definitive timetable was announced for when the system would go live.

RELATED: Ontario updates vaccination priorities, making preparations for Phase 2 rollout

The province says residents aged 80 and older would be contacted over the next several weeks about vaccination appointments and that primary physicians can begin reaching out while development continues on the online booking system and service desk.

Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, who is leading the vaccine rollout, said the appointments will likely begin in March and he encouraged people to reach out to those they know in that age group to ensure they learn about vaccine opportunities.

Hillier said the province likely won’t start vaccinating those younger than 80 until at least April or May.

Naming conventions aside, another concern that was raised was the scheduling software being used to power the online portal. It’s the same software that California is utilizing, which has been criticized as cumbersome and difficult for seniors to use and those who don’t speak English as a first language. As of right now, Ontario says the portal will only be available in English and French.

“This needs to be a 24/7 operation, accessible to all 15-million Ontarians,” said Dr. Stall. “It cannot be a portal that works just for someone like you or I who has good computer literacy and may be more tech savvy.”

Ontario – and Canada as a whole – is well behind other developed countries when it comes to having software up and running for vaccines. Months ago the UK launched their Vaccine Queue Calculator which gives citizens a rough idea of when it will be their turn to get vaccinated.

“Why isn’t this up and running right now in terms of getting people familiar with where they go, what kind of information they need, how to use the website. If they don’t have the capacity to use the website, making sure they have someone who can help them out,” said Professor Kohler. “There are no excuses. Why are we sitting back, why aren’t these things in place. We knew this was coming and the planning seems to be all over the place.”

The province says for those people who are not comfortable going online, they will be setting up call centres that individuals can call to book an appointment. However, those call centres aren’t operational yet either.

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