UPDATE: Alberta COVID-19 vaccine booking site ‘experiencing very high volumes’ as appointments open to those 75 and older
Albertans 75 and older will be able to start booking appointments for their COVID-19 vaccinations starting on Wednesday at 8 a.m., but there are questions and concerns about how this phase of the vaccine rollout will unfold.
The first appointment for seniors will start at 11 a.m. the same day, according to Alberta Health Services. Appointment times will be offered between 8:20 a.m. and 3:40 p.m. seven days a week. AHS said it would extend hours in mid-March when there is more vaccine supply.
Anyone born in 1946 and earlier is eligible, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Tuesday.
While seniors in congregate living facilities such as lodges and retirement homes were offered COVID-19 vaccinations starting late last week, Wednesday will mark the first day of vaccinations for community seniors.
Seniors in licensed supportive living sites don’t need to book appointments. AHS is contacting those sites directly to arrange for the vaccination of residents.
Seniors living independently can book their first and second doses starting Wednesday at 8 a.m. by calling Health Link 811 or by booking online at www.ahs.ca/covidvaccine.
“Please be patient,” Hinshaw said. “We expect there will be enormous demand for vaccine.”
Seniors will be directed to one of the 58 vaccination clinics closest to where they live.
Family members, friends or loved ones can book on behalf of an Alberta senior. Have the date of birth of the person receiving the vaccine and their Alberta Health Care number handy.
Those receiving their immunization who are in need of transportation can ask family and friends for assistance or contact 211.
Pharmacists will be assisting with vaccinations in the future, according to Alberta Health, which said more details will be released later this week. Family doctors may also be helping with vaccinations in future phases.
AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said Health Link will be increasing staff to meet “the anticipated high call volume and demand.”
Williamson said wait times will likely still be higher than normal as a result of interest in booking a vaccination.
The expanded eligibility means more than 230,000 Alberta seniors will be able to book vaccine appointments, along with health-care workers who were eligible in the first phase.
In order to reduce waste and manage vaccine supply, all immunizations are being done by appointment, not walk-ins.
Hinshaw said all Alberta seniors who want a vaccine should be able to get their first dose before the end of March.
Some online portals in the United States have run into issues due to high demand; Williamson said AHS has worked to ensure the platform for the online vaccine booking tool is “robust and can readily handle large volumes of users.
“Testing of the site has occurred, and AHS is confident the site is designed to meet the needs of all Albertans that will be booking a COVID-19 vaccine,” Williamson said.
Dr. Noel Gibney, co-chair of the Edmonton Zone Medical Staff Association’s pandemic response committee, said there have been examples in the United States of younger people organizing to help seniors book immunizations. He then noted that, in contrast, the online booking system in the United Kingdom has worked well.
“It depends very much on how well the system is set up,” he said.
“There’s no question, in some instances, if the online portal isn’t well designed and able to cope with the large number of inquiries, there is a risk it could crash.”
However, Gibney said AHS has experience using a portal system for booking vaccines for their staff.
“One would imagine it’s not their first rodeo in terms of booking vaccines. I would certainly hope it would be able to cope with significant number of online bookings,” he said.
Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO of CanAge — an advocacy organization for older Canadians — said some older seniors may not be as comfortable with an online portal or have accessibility issues.
“Rural people and folks who are older may find themselves unable to get into (the) online system. We know that where older people are struggling and where internet is slow, online portals have real limitations to them,” she said.
Watts said it is important there are other access points, such as phone systems, but she still has concerns.
“Older people over the age of 85 may be much more comfortable with a phone line but again, will the systems be able to support the demand is the question we all have,” she said.
“The concern is, will older people be able to spend hours on a phone line? We know there can be good systems where you can call and get a phone call back. Will those types of systems be implemented is very unclear.”
Dr. Don Wilson, a family doctor and president of the community doctors’ division for EZMSA, said it is unclear right now what role family doctors will play in the vaccine rollout and a lack of clarity about where family doctors fall in prioritization.
Wilson is also frustrated with the vague details surrounding the next part of the rollout.
“We’ve been through this pandemic now for a year. We’ve known there is a vaccine coming for nearly a year,” he said.
“It’s not a difficult process to create a plan on how you’re going to administer a vaccine.
“It seems like everything else with this vaccine – we’re making this up as we go along. There’s no real plan. I don’t know what the plan is. The community doesn’t know what the plan is. To be honest, I’m not even sure the government knows what the plan is.”
Wilson is also taking issue with the limited hours vaccines will be made available for seniors 75 and older.
“I don’t understand that logic either. If you’re going to do this rollout, get the rollout going. There’s little reason this can’t start early in the morning and go well into the evening,” he said.
“To limit the hours means I have no idea how many people you’re really going to be able to vaccinate.”
A spokesperson for Alberta Health said the hours of operation are due to the vaccine supply.
“We do not have sufficient supply at this time to operate longer hours. As more doses arrive in the coming weeks, we will be able to increase these hours,” said Tom McMillan.