PHSD hosts two Island vaccination clinics this week, addresses registration concerns

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MANITOULIN – Manitoulin Health Centre is hosting two mass vaccination clinics this week in partnership with Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) to deliver COVID-19 inoculations to the current list of eligible recipients, which includes people born in 1941 or earlier, recipients of chronic home care and higher-priority health care workers.

The first-dose vaccination timeline is speeding up because of Ontario’s decision to extend its dosing schedule changes, as recommended through the National Advisory Committee on Immunization. Now, patients can receive their second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in 16 weeks, up from the old recommendation of three to four weeks.

Long-term care, elder care lodge, assisted living and retirement home residents will continue to follow the original, shorter timeframe as they are considered higher risk.

“Although I understand that people who have received their first dose were looking forward to receiving their second dose, they will need to wait a bit longer. This new guidance will … allow us to protect our communities faster,” said PHSD medical officer of health Dr. Penny Sutcliffe.

She said studies show that vaccines are still effective enough in the longer timeframe and even first doses provide some protection, so Canada has advised provinces to get as many first doses into arms as possible.

Islanders have been raising concerns about the process of getting registered and booking appointments. Eligible people can register online but this process faces two significant issues on Manitoulin—substandard internet access, especially over the past year with more users online, and many people’s uncomfortability with using computers in the 80-plus demographic.

There is a phone line available for those who need help registering, but it is stricken with extensive wait times, sometimes hours long. This is partly because when appointments become available, registered people who are selected have to call to book a time.

The Expositor asked Dr. Sutcliffe about these issues and she said Ontario would be launching its online appointment booking service this past Monday, March 15. As PHSD transitions to that service, demand on the phone lines should decrease and allow those who struggle with web access to get through easier, though as of Monday, the Ontario tool redirects users back to the PHSD SurveyMonkey registration link.

“We are committed to making it better but I’d estimate about two weeks before we get to what I’d call the most accessible state,” she said, adding that the priority remains getting vaccines in the arms of the most at-risk populations.

Vaccinations for this round work on a lottery system. Those who qualify can register for the shot and when a clinic happens in their area, the system will notify random eligible people and invite them to book an appointment.

The first round of vaccination registration intake happened over the first weekend in March and some users had questions over whether their names would remain in the system for future lottery draws. Dr. Sutcliffe told The Expositor that those names remain in the pool for local clinics and those individuals do not need to re-register.

She said despite PHSD moving into the grey-lockdown level of restrictions effective this past Friday, March 12, the vaccination distribution schedule is slated to continue status-quo.

“With the lockdown, we hope to see fewer cases, freeing up more public health staff to deliver more vaccines. We should see more vaccines arriving on our doorstep, so we want to ramp up and make sure the only limiting factor is getting (vaccines) to here,” she said.

As PHSD follows the provincial guidance to extend the second-dose interval, its officials will contact those who have a second shot booked to extend that date, unless they fall into one of the higher-risk categories outlined above.

As of press time Monday, March 15, 14,079 people have received their first dose and 1,695 people have been fully vaccinated in the PHSD catchment area. The health unit has given out 15,774 doses in total. PHSD stated it was taking every effort to ensure that COVID-19 vaccine clinics are accessible and inviting and that people have information about the opportunities to register, as well as enough lead time to book appointments.

Those who meet the eligibility criteria, as stated above, should visit SurveyMonkey.ca/r/vaccineappointment. Anyone who needs assistance or who cannot access the service may call 1-800-708-2505 seven days per week between 7 am and 9 pm.

PHSD is experiencing very high call volumes, leading to some of the lengthy delays. The health unit stated it appreciates residents’ patience and encouraged as many people to use the online registration system as possible to alleviate some of the phone line pressures.