While the province is urgently pushing to get as many people vaccinated as possible, those without OHIP — who officials say do qualify for vaccination — are hitting a massive roadblock even if they fall into eligible categories.
Monica Aguirre said trying to book her 69-year-old mother an appointment through the provincial portal over the past week has been an exercise in futility. Her mother is visiting from Colombia on a super-visa, which allows her to stay in the country for up to two years at a time, but does not entitle her to OHIP.
“I’ve seen online and on TV, everywhere, telling people ‘get vaccinated, it’s open, you don’t need any OHIP’,” she explained. “The moment I call [the provincial call centre] to book an appointment they are telling me that because my mom doesn’t have OHIP, she needs to get a ‘COVID ID’ from Toronto Public Health (TPH).”
Upon calling TPH, Aguirre said they were unable to provide her with a COVID ID. Instead she was told they would send her information to a vaccination site and the site would contact her — but she did not hear back.
“I called a couple of times to do this…they don’t know when they’re going to be able to book it online, they cannot give me a COVID ID so that I can call and book it myself,” she said, adding that she had no luck at pharmacies either.
“We are not cutting the line, we are doing things by the book, but the system is not allowing us.”
Toronto’s Associate Medical Officer of Health confirmed to CityNews that there is no such thing as a COVID ID. Dr. Vinita Dubey said they are aware that provincial call centre agents have been directing people in Toronto without an OHIP card to call the TPH hotline, but hotline staff do not have access to the provincial booking system.
In a statement to CityNews, the Ministry of Health says individuals with no health card can contact their local public health unit to validate their identity and obtain a COVID ID, a process that other public health units across the province have already implemented.
“We are working on a process for how we can give appointments to people who do not have an OHIP card,” Dubey explained, but whether the process will be online, by phone, or some other method is still being determined.
In the mean time, Dubey said TPH is doing what they can to support residents. Currently, if a caller does not have an Ontario Health card, hotline agents are taking down the person’s information and will contact them when the system is in place.
Dubey added that while TPH works on the problem, those without OHIP can book through a hospital vaccination site, as they have their own portals that work within the provincial framework, but may have different booking criteria.
Aguirre came to that conclusion on her own when she checked the North York General portal and saw that her mother would only need to present her passport to get vaccinated. She also called the hospital to check if the information on the website was correct and her mother is now booked in for her first shot on Friday.
But Aguirre said she is one of the lucky few who have the time and wherewithal to run from pillar to post and advocate for her mother. She knows thousands of others are not as privileged.
“You have international students who are graduates, people on a work permit who don’t have full time jobs, you have new immigrants who are waiting for their OHIP, you have people who have been sponsored by their spouses who also don’t have OHIP,” she said.
“There are so many people who may be afraid of speaking up and asking these questions. So if you can’t go online, if you can’t get this information [easily], people are not going to be getting vaccinated and at the end of the day, that is the main goal — to get people vaccinated.”
While she managed to find a solution for her mother, Aguirre said the process left her frustrated and fearful.
“Frustration because I’m not being able to get any answers. I’m being directed to a website, being directed to another phone call, being put on hold for hours…and fear because [if my mom gets COVID-19] that’s going to put us at risk…but also it’s going to put a lot more pressure on the system that is already packed with people in the ICUs.”
Meanwhile, as TPH works to implement a system that will allow vaccine bookings sans OHIP, Dr. Dubey said that when the process does go into effect, it will be open to all, documentation not withstanding.
“We will be accepting government ID even if it’s not Canadian,” she said. “Some people may be concerned if they don’t have documentation, they’re worried that getting vaccinated may alert them to authorities, that is not the case. Whatever their status is here in Toronto, it will be secure and so they should still continue to get vaccinated when they are eligible.”
The low barrier, ‘OHIP-no-bar’ booking system is expected to be in place by mid-April.