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COVID-19: Confusion, frustration as Ottawa residents turned away from vaccine pop-up

A COVID-19 vaccine pop-up clinic became a source of frustration Wednesday morning as dozens were turned away despite their neighbours getting the shot days earlier. File photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Ottawa health officials are acknowledging their COVID-19 vaccination strategy needs some fine-tuning after dozens of vaccine-hopefuls in the Merivale area were turned away from a pop-up clinic Wednesday morning, despite their neighbours getting a shot at the site earlier this week.

Upwards of 150 people lined up starting at 5 a.m. outside the Howard Darwin Centennial Arena on Merivale Road on Wednesday for the third day of a pop-up vaccine clinic targeting residents in the Parkwood Hills and Stewart Farm communities.

Katherine Dines was one of the people in line, hoping to book a vaccine appointment for her 22-year-old daughter that day. Her 18-year-old daughter was able to bike over on Tuesday morning and book an appointment for later the same day with no issue.

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But Dines, like dozens of others who woke up early to wait for a shot in the dark on Wednesday, was turned away by staff at the clinic who told her the family’s address was outside the limits to qualify for a shot that day.

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Dines said the mood in the crowd changed from hopeful to frustrated as staff couldn’t offer explanations for the new neighbourhood cutoffs.

“We don’t know, we just work here, it’s changed today,” was the only message from staff, Dines said.

“People were pleading… People were frustrated, they were confused.”

Dines said she and her family first heard about the pop-up clinics from a neighbourhood Facebook group. Though she wasn’t sure whether her address — within the K2E postal code but a 25-minute walk from the arena — would qualify for the clinic, she said she heard from friends and neighbours that they had gotten their jabs through the three-day pop up.

Some people who were turned away Wednesday said they had heard from friends or seen posts online that residents aged 18 and older who lived in a hot spot anywhere in Ottawa — not just those living in the Merivale area — could come to the Howard Darwin clinic.

“Word of mouth is huge,” Dines said.

Read more: Here’s who’s eligible to book a COVID-19 vaccine in Ottawa for the week of May 10

Ottawa Public Health and the city’s communication strategy has often been muted when it comes to publicizing pop-up clinics, which are intended to target anyone 18 and older in neighbourhoods experiencing high rates of COVID-19.

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Dines said that a tweet Tuesday from OPH showing a highlighted map with the Parkwood Hills and Stewart Farm neighbourhood didn’t make it clear whether the people on the edges of the map would qualify. Replies to that tweet were filled with frustrated Ottawa residents calling for more information.

Anthony Di Monte, the head of Ottawa’s vaccine task force, said in a press conference Wednesday morning that the process for pop-up clinics has been “less structured” than the city’s mass vaccination sites to allow health workers to “experiment” with the best ways to get vaccines to hard-hit neighbourhoods.

He said that strategy has been “adapted” as it goes, which has created “a few problems” around which neighbourhoods qualify for vaccination at the sites, which the task force is looking to straighten out going forward.

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“This morning, a couple hundred people unfortunately had to be turned away because they weren’t in that neighbourhood. They were going there, they were basically going to take the vaccine from people who really need it,” Di Monte said.

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“If you don’t live in those neighbourhoods, please don’t go to these clinics. These clinics are to be able to get to these individuals that need a different pathway to be able to get a vaccine,” he said.

Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, sympathized with the residents who were caught up in the morning’s sudden shift in strategy.

“This must feel frustrating and confusing to people who thought they were eligible and then were told, when they showed up, that they weren’t,” she said, adding that staff on site do “hesitate” to turn people away.

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Keith Egli, chair of the Ottawa Board of Health and the councillor for the ward that includes the Howard Darwin arena, said there will inevitably be “bumps in the road” when it comes to trying new things with the vaccine rollout.

He celebrated the clinic as a success, however, with 2,400 people receiving a vaccine over the three days of the pop-up.

“Yes, we’ll refine it going forward, but I think we did some really good work… in getting to that population,” he said.

Read more: Ottawa opens Infinity Centre COVID-19 vaccine clinic for ‘hot spot’ neighbourhoods

Di Monte acknowledged that relying on hard data, postal codes and loosely-defined neighborhoods can make drawing the line for vaccine eligibility challenging, but seeing the effects of people in vulnerable communities getting vaccinated is an indication that the task force and its partners are making an impact.

“It’s worth a few challenges. We’ll try to adjust and be a little bit more precise as we continue going forward.”

Dines said that while she understands the situation is fluid, the public health team needs to provide more clarity in its communications. Sites of mass confusion at pop-up clinics can ultimately be harmful to the vaccination campaign, she said.

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“It undermines confidence in public health when you don’t make it more clear,” Dines said.

“There’s definitely lessons to be learned.”

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