After more than a year of pandemic life, Ontarians are flocking to social media to share their stories of booking a COVID-19 vaccination.
Or, at least, how they tried.
Premier Doug Ford announced last week that anyone aged 18 and up in certain "hot spots" will be eligible for vaccines, but public health units — whose responsibility it became to plan how to carry out these vaccinations — appear to have been caught off guard, and are still having trouble figuring out what do to.
Solicitor General Sylvia Jones didn’t answer QP Briefing when asked twice how far in advance public health units were told about the hot spot plan, but said she and Health Minister Christine Elliott meet three times a week with them and hospital CEOs.
"So specifically, when we talked about ... those hot zone postal codes, there's been a number of conversations," she said.
NDP MPP Suze Morrison and councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who both represent Toronto Centre, say local representatives weren't told about the plan either, leading to conflicting statements about whether 18+ adults in their hot spot postal code could book appointments.
"...you shouldn't have to be a detective to hunt down a vaccine," Morrison said.
As health units figure out their plans, Ontarians describe the hunt for information, and the booking process itself, as confusing and tiresome.
In some hot spots, 18+ vaccine slots opened, were booked up in minutes, then shut down due to a lack of doses.
Toronto communications company principal Scott Reid described how he booked slots for his family, traveled to the clinic, and then was turned away because, even though they had a confirmation code, the system wasn't set up properly.
Others have reported being banned from the University Health Network's (UHN) vaccine booking portal if they don't have a middle name, or if they have a hyphen in their name.
"Hello user, you have been banned from accessing our site," reads an error message reported by multiple people. "If you feel this ban was a mistake, please contact the website administrator to have it removed. Otherwise go away now."
[ON] @UHN and general heads up to others - several people are reporting issues with the UHN booking system which is wrongfully banning them https://t.co/xNXLu1P0Ys #COVID19 #COVID19Vaccine #COVID19ON #vhcON pic.twitter.com/e38aKRzuYb
— Vaccine Hunters Canada (@VaxHuntersCan) April 13, 2021
Reddit user hapticsnow said they were able to reverse the ban by using Chrome Developer tools to edit the request being sent to UHN's server, thanks to a tip from another user, Normalize_This.
"I shouldn't have to be a web developer to make a booking," Normalize_This wrote.
Others have reported booking successfully through UHN, but receiving a confirmation of their appointment under a different name.
— Nicole (she/her) The maker of trouble (@TheAwkwardDrop) April 13, 2021
UHN spokesperson Jordana Goldman said the issues were fixed yesterday morning. She said they're looking into the error message, which she said "seems to be from the hosting service, not UHN."
Many have shared their frustration in a massive Reddit thread that currently appears to contain the most consolidated, up-to-date information on vaccinations in Toronto.
The community-oriented approach has apparently helped many Ontarians book an appointment, but the absurdity of the situation is not lost on them.
"It’s so disappointing that we have to rely on the community to consolidate all the vaccination information into a digestible format. Our government should be embarrassed," Reddit user Talkback92 wrote.
Despite the mass confusion, Ford blamed Ontarians on Tuesday for not understanding the web of failing systems.
"It's very, very simple," he said, before giving the wrong number for the provincial booking system.
Asked if she agreed with the premier's comments, Jones doubled down on Wednesday that the system is straightforward.
"So the first thing that anyone needs to do, is go on to the Ontario portal — COVID-19 book vaccine," she said, likely referring to covid-19.ontario.ca/book-vaccine. "Put your postal code in, and you will be directed to exactly where you need to go in terms of where you live, where you work and what you work at."
The circuitous route this site takes some users on has been documented in a viral Twitter thread by Brad Vermunt, who runs a Toronto Raptors analysis YouTube channel.
I don't get why people in Ontario aged 18-49 find it confusing to book their vaccine appt. Just go to https://t.co/9H5GbBXBuf. Then, you may think clicking "age criteria for your Public Health Unit" would show you age criteria for your Public Health Unit, but you'd be wrong. 1/21 pic.twitter.com/sB9vyV2Bou
— TooMuchHoops (Brad) (@Too_Much_Hoops) April 13, 2021
A different booking site, covid19.ontariohealth.ca, asks for a health card number and postal code, but was "unable to confirm" the eligibility of this reporter, who is under 50 and lives in a hot spot area.
Opposition leaders reacted to the premier's comments with disgust.
“To have the premier of the province of Ontario mocking Ontarians who can't figure their way through this really messed up vaccination booking system, you know, it’s just such an insult," NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said. "The premier needs to take responsibility for this hot mess that is their vaccination plan and stop blaming Ontarians for his failures."
Green Leader Mike Schreiner said Ford "needs to stop blaming and gaslighting Ontarians for the inadequate, confusing job that his government is doing in rolling out this vaccine.”
"I was absolutely blown away, in a bad way, by Premier Doug Ford's performance yesterday, as, not for the first time — he has done this so many times during the pandemic — he lashed out and blamed everyone else for his own shortcomings," Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said.
Blaming Ontarians for not understanding overlapping and often conflicting public health advice has indeed been a consistent strategy for the premier and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams.
In October, as cases were rising again after the summer, Williams said more public health measures won't be needed "if people did what they're supposed to do."
He said "people imploded the concept" of social circles, and added, “What did you not understand about our messaging?”
In January, near the beginning of the third wave, Williams said, “Sometimes people say, we're not sure what we're really asking people to do. I don’t know how much more clear we can be."
And this month, he scolded Ontarians for gathering outside in large groups, saying that's not what officials meant when they told people to go outside.
The messaging has frustrated Ontarians and behavioural science experts, who say shaming people is not helpful in getting them to follow public health measures.
Del Duca also called for the provincial booking system to be opened up to anyone eligible for a vaccine, including all those aged 18 and up in hot spots.
Horwath and Schreiner said they're not opposed to the idea, but that the problems should've been cleared up months ago.
“The horse is already out of the barn," Horwath said.