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Province urged to add three Hamilton COVID-19 hot spots to its vaccine booking system

Syringes and disinfectant wipes that will be used at the COVID-19 vaccine clinic Strathcona Paper Centre in Napanee, Ontario, on Monday March 15, 2021. The centre will be used as a immunization clinic for the Napanee area.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lars Hagberg

The leader of Ontario’s NDP and a Hamilton city councillor are both calling on the provincial government to add three additional COVID-19 “hot spots” to the province’s vaccine booking system.

In a release on Tuesday, Hamilton Centre MPP Andrea Horwath and Ward 3 Councillor Nrinder Nann said the three postal codes identified as high risk by the city’s medical officer of health need to be prioritized and added to the online booking system to make it easier for residents in those hot spots to get the vaccine.

“Hamilton Public Health has done the critical work of identifying COVID-19 hotspots in Hamilton, and they’re doing incredible work to protect people living in those communities – but they’re being hamstrung by the province,” said Horwath in the release.

Residents living in postal codes beginning with L8W and L9C – which are among the 114 hot spots recognized by the province – can use the online booking tool, but those living in L8L, L8N and L9K must call Hamilton’s COVID-19 vaccine hotline at 905-974-9848, option 7.

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Read more: COVID-19 vaccine eligibility expands in Hamilton hot spots

Since eligibility in Ontario’s hot spots expanded to anyone 18 and older on Monday, the city’s hotline has been overwhelmed with calls.

“Municipalities and public health units were never designed or structured to handle huge hotline and call centre volumes,” said Paul Johnson, director of Hamilton’s emergency operations centre, during a media briefing on Monday.

“There just isn’t one in the province that can handle tens of thousands of calls coming in at any one time. We’ve done our best to put a lot of staff on to this.

Speaking to Global News on Tuesday, Nann said residents living in her ward are already anxious about living in an identified COVID-19 hot spot and being unable to use the provincial system to book is an added source of anxiety for them.

“If this tool has been created to enable Ontarians to connect to the vaccine as soon as it is available, then it is unfathomable to me that a problem in the system has been flagged and that they haven’t been able to correct it,” said Nann.

“It’s creating a barrier from those communities that are the highest impact and highest risk. And that is a dereliction of public health. It is a dereliction of duty of any government.”

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Read more: City urges ‘patience’ as Hamilton’s COVID-19 vaccine hotline struggles with high call volume

Nann said those living in hot spots aren’t always able to spend hours on the phone trying to book an appointment and may be exposed to COVID-19 before they can get their shot.

“We have so many workers whose spouses, whose family members and neighbours, have been on that hotline for hours trying to get them registered. And it’s my hope that with the next category of eligibility opening up … we need to take care of every one of those priority group workers, essential workers who do not have the privilege of working from home, make sure that they have their vaccines booked before we open it up province-wide for 18 plus.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, the city said it continues to experience “very high” call volumes and is urging residents trying to book an appointment through the hotline to “be patient and keep trying”.

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Hamilton’s local representative in the Ford government told Global News that the province is not looking at adding those postal codes to the online booking tool.

“I know that there is a lot of pressure right now on the city of Hamilton because there are a number of people at 18 and older who want the vaccine — that’s actually a good thing,” said Donna Skelly, MPP for Flamborough-Glanbrook.

“But in a few weeks, everyone in Ontario over the age of 18 will also be able to get a vaccine. So they will be able to get that appointment through the provincial website.”

Read more: Hamilton offers AstraZeneca vaccine clinic, Johnson and Johnson pause shouldn’t slow rollout

Skelly said they heard from multiple public health units across the province, including Hamilton, that wanted to add more COVID-19 hot spots beyond the 114 identified by the Ministry of Health.

“We said to these public health units, you can consider those hotspots and you can offer vaccines according to the age requirements that the province had come up with in those particular area codes.”

The province is sending 50 per cent of its vaccine doses to hot spot regions this week and next in an effort to target communities where COVID-19 transmission is high.

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Hamilton’s chief medical officer of health said those extra doses that the city receives become part of the “overall” supply and are targeted for use in hot spots.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson said public health had looked at other ways of letting residents book through the city instead of the provincial system but ultimately opted to stick with the hotline, despite its “shortcomings”.

“Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, as each solution was looked at, there were barriers that made it such that we couldn’t move forward,” she said during Monday’s update.

“For example, one system that was looked at by some of the partners actually had its data stored in the U.S. and so for privacy reasons, we couldn’t pursue that one any further. Another one, there was no ability to really work with that portal. It was just an open portal.”

Johnson said the city will keep working with the province to open up more eligibility to Hamiltonians through their online portal due to its capacity to accommodate many more people.

“If we had a system that was totally customizable, we would do that, but we don’t, and the province’s system … we just work very closely with them as best we can.”

As of Tuesday, the total number of vaccine doses administered in Hamilton is hovering just under 200,000 – with 36.5 per cent of all eligible residents having received at least one dose.

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