Canada’s most populous city will start feeding information about available COVID-19 vaccination appointments directly to a group of volunteers who have made it their mission to help as many people as possible navigate a complex booking system.
The City of Toronto will share information about next-day appointment availability with the team at Vaccine Hunters Canada, officials announced Wednesday.
“This is a huge, all-hands-on-deck effort and Vaccine Hunters Canada have stepped up to help people get vaccinated and navigate the different registration systems,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a statement.
The group shares information about which clinics and pharmacies have open appointments for COVID-19 vaccines on their Twitter account, which boasts nearly 200,000 followers.
They also have a website that links to provincial and regional websites with vaccine information, and a server on Discord — a messaging app primarily used by video gamers — where people can get direct support.
Joshua Kalpin, one of the “core members” of the Vaccine Hunters Canada team, said in a statement that the group is honoured to work with the city.
“This is a new phase for our organization, and we are excited to increase our efforts to collaborate with public health units across the province,” he said.
In an earlier interview with The Canadian Press, Kalpin said a group of volunteers combs the websites and social media accounts of local public health units to centralize information about vaccine eligibility and appointments.
“There’s just a lot of different websites and each public health unit has a different strategy, which I think makes sense considering Canada is a incredibly large country and an incredibly diverse country,” he said. “…And it can be a bit confusing, unfortunately, because there’s all these different things.”
He said the group is driven by a deep sense of community.
“It’s our duty as Canadians to reach out to our family, our friends, our neighbors, or everyone else in our community and help them get their vaccine done,” Kalpin said.
Ontario’s government has faced sharp criticism for what many describe as a confusing vaccine booking system with a dearth of centralized information.
While the province has a website that allows people to book vaccine appointments in many public health units, some regions have opted to use their own booking systems.
Further, those who are only eligible for the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot must book appointments directly with pharmacies administering that vaccine, not through the provincial booking system.
And though the province has opened up vaccine eligibility to people aged 18 to 44 who live in COVID-19 hot-spot neighbourhoods, it doesn’t offer them centralized online booking.
Instead, the provincial website tells those people that “mobile and pop-up clinics will be promoted locally by community partners and public health units, starting in Peel and Toronto.”
The work of Vaccine Hunters Canada, meanwhile, has been praised by the likes of the nation’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam.
The City of Toronto said it’s not spending any money on its “partnership” with the volunteer-run group, and the mayor said the group’s success doesn’t suggest a failure on the part of government communications.
He said it just makes sense for the city to share information with an “enterprising group of volunteers,” given their shared mission to vaccinate as many people as possible.
As for their popularity?
“Oftentimes, it’s not government or even big companies that come up with innovative ways to get people’s attention _ that little twist that causes people to think that it’s the place to go,” Tory told a news conference. “I think a lot of it sometimes has to do with the viral spread of the name of the website or the application or the Twitter address that catches people’s attention.”
— With files by Adina Bresge