Newmarket senior Patricia Hislop is frustrated after struggling to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose for herself and her family.
She said she tried for weeks to find a booking for her 93-year-old mother-in-law, checking the regional, provincial and pharmacy booking systems. She said she finally landed an appointment for this week but has not had the same luck for herself or her husband, who became eligible for boosters Dec. 13, along with other residents aged 50 and older who had their second dose at least six months ago.
“It just gets frustrating. More than frustrating,” Hislop said. “When they open up, it’s really urgent, and people need to get vaccinated. But if there are no appointments, how do they expect you to get vaccinated?”
Hislop is one of many local residents eager to get a COVID-19 booster dose but who are running up against limited availability. Residents report York Region’s clinics were fully booked for the next 10 days in advance it allows for appointments, with pharmacies already using waitlists by Monday when eligibility was expanded. Booster doses are only available by appointment.
The omicron variant is increasing the pressure to get a booster dose. York medical officer of health Dr. Barry Pakes said it has prompted officials to seek to speed up the rollout.
But Hislop said there is a problem given there are fewer large spaces acting as vaccination centres compared to earlier in the pandemic. The region shifted to focus on pop-up clinics in the summer, closing several of its mass vaccination centres at the end of August.
“There are no big areas where they’re actually giving the shots out,” she said. “They’re just having these small pop-up clinics, and they can’t take that many people at a time.”
York Region director of corporate communications Patrick Casey said demand is high and the system is facing pressure. There are 200,000 residents age 50 and older eligible for a booster dose, another 50,000 gaining eligibility within 10 days, and approximately 60,000 young children still needing to get their first COVID-19 dose.
"We are doing our best to make York Region Public Health clinics available and appointments available," Casey said. "New appointments are added daily. Please check back often to book an appointment."
He added there were also some system issues on york.ca Dec. 13, but they have been resolved.
Casey said they are considering new measures to expand availability, including extending hours, adding staff and potentially opening "new and larger clinic sites."
"These efforts are all ongoing and take time to implement," Casey said. "However, we understand the urgency with the new emergence of the omicron variant."
Pharmacies are also facilitating the vaccine rollout, but Newmarket residents have reported having to waitlist, which larger pharmacies like Rexall are doing. For instance, Optimum Pharmacy in Newmarket is booked up until Jan. 18 at the time of publishing, according to its website.
“Even drugstores are all booked up for weeks. They sure don’t make it very easy, do they?” one commenter said on a local Facebook group.
The province is also facing pressure to ramp up its vaccination efforts. The Ontario Liberals are calling on the Ford government to open up booster dose eligibility to those 18 and older who had their last dose at least six months ago, accompanied with 24/7 vaccination clinics and making free rapid tests more widely available.
Those seeking a first or a second COVID-19 vaccine can still get them on a walk-in basis if they are 12 or older. The vaccine for children ages five to 11 is on an appointment basis, but York Region has been able to vaccinate approximately 32.2 per cent of 91,000 kids in that age group since vaccines were made available to them Nov. 26.
Casey said other options exist beyond york.ca/covid19vaccine, through pharmacies or the provincial system at covid-19.ontario.ca. He said you can also contact Access York at 1-877-464-9675 to book an appointment, though call volumes may be high.
"Please be patient," Casey said. "Everyone will be able to receive their first, second and booster doses."
Hislop said she hopes more appointments become available and they can get booked further in advance.
“Even if I can book an appointment after Christmas, I would feel better,” she said. “It’s no wonder the space books up quickly.”