After the University Health Network (UHN) opened pre-registration for vaccines in three Toronto hotspots on April 12, over 20,000 people signed up in a 24 hour period and the registry was closed the next day due to lack of vaccines.
Since then, emails have been sent out by the province to many in the M5V, M6H and M6E postal codes, inviting them to book a vaccine appointment at any clinic under the provincial booking system.
Numerous discussions on social media suggest that invites were received by people in varying circumstances, with no discernable common thread, such as age or medical risk factors.
Concerns about criteria and who qualifies abound as UHN has said they have a finite number of vaccines and “vaccine supply is the limiting factor.”
Who is on the vaccine invite list and why?
“I work in the construction industry. I’m actually not on site, I’m in the office but required to be on site when needed,” said Anthony Fogolin, 29, who lives in the M5V postal code. “It’s not really an option for me to work from home.”
Fogolin said others in his neighbourhood have gotten a vaccine invites and he does not understand why he hasn’t, given that he is an essential worker.
“You’re seeing people that are able to get the vaccine that actually can work from home now,” he said. “Now it’s coming to a point as to where do we fit in? I know everyone has to wait their turn…it’s just, when will it happen?”
The UHN told CityNews that after they were inundated with vaccine pre-registrations for those 18+ from the mid and downtown Toronto hotspots, they had to move 8,000 people from their registries to the provincial system.
“As UHN had limited vaccine supply to give to those registered in a 24 hour period, we have been sending names to the provincial registry so that they could be offered a booking appointment from the provincial registry,” said a UHN spokesperson, adding “it is more likely that they will be vaccinated through that system than through our clinics.”
Those 8,000 names were first chosen from the UHN’s existing list of people who were registered under other eligibility criteria and fall into risk categories and also live in the three identified postal codes. Thereafter, people registered under the postal code criteria alone were chosen by random selection.
However, the UHN is not involved in sending out the vaccine invites — that falls under the province’s purview.
CityNews reached out to the province about who is being chosen to receive these invites and based on what criteria. As of publication, a response has not been received.
“We’re in a Facebook group in our condo … some people have posted that they have gotten the call. They said check your junk email,” Fogolin explained.
“You go through and refresh your email – I do almost every half an hour. You’re kind of on pins and needles as to when you’re going to get that notification.”
The problem with booking appointments
Among those who have received the invite, some were able to book appointments at the MARS clinic downtown.
However, many others said there are either no appointments available close by or availability exists only in areas like Mississauga or Etobicoke — a long commute from the Toronto postal codes they registered under.
“I couldn’t understand why they sent me an invitation if there are no spots available,” Kristina Geddes, 38, who lives in the M5V postal code, said. “You do have to keep refreshing [the provincial portal page] over and over again and you have to book far away from you.”
Geddes said she lives and works from home downtown as a communications manager and does not own a vehicle. She will have to take a taxi or rideshare to her appointment that she managed to book at Cloverdale Mall in Etobicoke.
“I can Uber there, that’s not a problem for me. I have the income, I have a credit card,” she explained. “But we know that a lot of people in these hotspots may not have access to a vehicle, may not have a credit card, may not be able to afford to travel that far or that long away from our area.”
Julian Solis, 40, from the M6E postal code works in IT from home and said he and his wife will also have to take a cab to their appointment at the International Centre in Mississauga.
“It’s not a great option to have to ride in an Uber for half an hour to get there. [But] it makes me a lot more comfortable than riding the TTC all the way out there and it definitely makes me a lot more comfortable than not having the vaccine at all” he said. “When we saw the opening, we just took it.”
Confusion at Peel Region clinics
Many Toronto residents who booked at clinics in Peel said they faced further complications and were turned away because they did not meet the eligibility criteria for those clinics.
Heather Stone, 39, from the M6H postal code, secured an appointment at the International Centre for April 19. Before heading to her appointment, Stone called the provincial vaccine hotline to make sure she could get vaccinated at that clinic. She said she was told the system would not have offered her the option at all if she wasn’t able to actually get the shot at that location.
“I arrived on Monday and sure enough the screener tried to turn me away,” she said. “I stayed calm and explained that I had a booking and that I was told I wouldn’t have been offered this location [if I were ineligible].”
Stone said a supervisor passing by happened to overhear her conversation and offered to look into the matter.
“Meanwhile the poor screener was telling me that anyone can book this location, but they turn people away all the time and that they only offer the vaccination to over 50,” she added.
The supervisor asked for Stone to show the personal invitation email with the code she had received. She was then allowed to proceed and got her shot.
“It was stressful and I do know of one person who was turned away for being under 50 and did not get her vaccine. The staff just seem to be getting a lot of different directives,” she said.
Jennifer Mair, 45, from the M5V postal code area, was also only able to book an appointment at the International Centre clinic and said she is frustrated with the runaround.
“Getting vaccinated shouldn’t feel like a treasure hunt,” she said.
Mair registered with UHN twice — once over three weeks ago, as having asthma makes her eligible under Phase 2, and a second time when her hotspot postal code became eligible last week. She then received an invite on April 16 to book her appointment.
“Peel Health told me I would be refused vaccination despite my appointment because they’re only doing 50+ locals. There was no instruction or communication to this effect [on the provincial website]” she said.
Peel Public Health initially also confirmed to CityNews that “those who are not eligible at Peel clinics will not receive the vaccine.”
In a statement they clarified:
“Only people who are deemed eligible by the provincial framework can book into our mass vaccination clinics using the provincial booking system. Currently these eligible groups include:
- Residents aged 50-59 in hot spots
- All residents aged 60 and older
- Education workers living or working in hot spots
- Special education workers
We have been in contact with the province regarding their booking system to inquire if other groups have been able to book into Peel clinics inadvertently.”
However, a spokesperson from the province told CityNews “eligible individuals are able to book in any clinic under the provincial booking system.”
“There is a huge disconnect between the Ministry of Health and UHN, and no one is providing clarity or taking responsibility to reduce confusion and not waste people’s time or get their hopes up,” Mair said.
Despite the possibility of being turned away, Mair said she took her chances at the International Centre clinic on Thursday and luckily, was vaccinated without incident — despite Peel Public Health’s statement to the contrary.
Geddes hopes she has the same experience when she goes to her appointment next week. Even though it is in Etobicoke, she says she’s apprehensive, having heard similar stories of people being turned away there.
“I’m just hoping that there’s not a roadblock there that I end up going home without a vaccine that I did register for,” she said.
“It’s just been frustrating. I just want to get my vaccine and get it over with.”
UPDATE: As of April 27, residents 45 and over in hot spots can book at Peel Region clinics.
On April 28, Peel Public Health clarified that when people originally began arriving at the region’s clinics with vaccine invites, they were “not aware that the province had sent them, so some people were turned away.”
“Once the province advised us of what they were doing, we decided that if someone had an appointment booked in the provincial booking system, we would honour those appointments,” they said.
Region hopping for vaccines
Geddes, Solis, Stone and Mair all said they have access to a vehicle, either private or rideshare, and are lucky enough to be able to make it to Mississauga or Etobicoke for their appointments, but many others may not be so privileged.
“There was a time in my life when I didn’t have a credit card and I wouldn’t have been able to do this,” Geddes shared.
Further, with the stay-at-home order in place and region hopping being discouraged, it seems almost counterintuitive to undertake a long commute from a hotspot location to a clinic over an hour away by public transit.
The possibility of being turned away only increases the uncertainties and frustration around the process.
However, when it comes to commuting for a vaccine, the province said it should not be a limiting factor in getting vaccinated.
“Under the stay-at-home order, individuals are still able to access health care services, including getting vaccinated. We encourage individuals to sign up to receive their vaccine once they are eligible,” they said.
“By this point we’re getting pretty used to somewhat contradictory options being part of day-to-day life…not much we can do but throw our hands up and make the best of it,” Solis concluded.