There are 100,000 arguments why Manitoba must rethink its procedure for booking vaccine appointments. That six-figure tally is the number of phone calls that were placed last weekend in an effort to schedule immunization appointments. The vast majority of them ended only in frustration and the firm realization that there must be a better way.
In simpler times, such a huge volume of calls (or, conversely, a similar number of online clicks) might perhaps be associated with trying to get tickets for an entertainment spectacle such as the latest Taylor Swift tour. But COVID-19 times are not simple times, and what motivated the blitz of calls was the arrival of Manitoba’s inaugural doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
The vast majority of the weekend calls didn’t lead to an appointment, but they did offer the callers a sample of the chaos surrounding the local introduction of the vaccine. Some were put on hold for hours, only to be suddenly disconnected. Others reached an automated service that couldn’t understand the callers’ answers, and terminated the call. One physician said he made 120 calls over the weekend and still didn’t get an appointment.
This latest pandemic fiasco is disappointingly reminiscent of the summertime lack of testing centres that saw Manitobans standing in line for hours, and the inadequate contact tracing that has contributed to the virus’s spread through the province.
To be fair, it isn’t the fault of provincial officials that Manitoba has only 900 initial doses of the vaccine. The federal government is allotting it as it becomes available, using a per-capita distribution formula. But once the vaccine arrives in its special -70C freezer, the province is responsible for arranging the inoculations, which is where the opening-weekend blunder happened.
Manitoba rightly decided to give the first vaccines to health-care staff working in direct contact with patients, and further specified older health-care staff would be first in line. These two guidelines are in line with federal recommendations. So far, so good.
The plan held up until the province opted for a first-come-first-served strategy that put the onus on eligible health-care staff to phone in to book an appointment. The 24-7 phone line was launched Saturday and was quickly swamped by the rush of calls, many from people who did not meet vaccine criteria but had somehow managed to gain access to the unpublicized number.
Chief provincial public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin apologized for the botch-up and said the early booking hiccups will not affect the actual vaccination schedule.
"We certainly didn’t want to keep our health-care workers on the line that long and cause that much frustration for them," he said.
One way to improve is with better communication, an imperative that has seemingly eluded the province through its earlier pandemic gaffes. The crush of calls to the booking line indicates many Manitobans don’t yet understand the province’s vaccination plans.
A second change would be to make it easier for health-care staff to get vaccinated. Health authorities have access to relevant personnel information to allow the province to do the legwork and assign vaccinations spots as required. Manitobans are exceedingly grateful to health-care workers; the least we can do is make it as easy as possible for them to get protection against the virus on the front lines.
The chaos of last weekend demonstrates the need for a better system for securing vaccine appointments. Manitobans will be more inclined to respect the queue if the order is presented as transparent and fair.