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COVID-19: Ontarians share their vaccination stories

Those with the time, technology and ability to hunt for available doses have had an advantage in the search
File photo.

Finding a COVID-19 vaccine in Ontario has been compared to a scavenger hunt. It's been a bumpy rollout for the vaccination campaign that began last December with long-term care residents, front-line health-care workers and others at high risk.

Some have reported technical challenges with the provincial booking system, difficulty accessing vaccination sites and confusion over the wide range of possible clinics and shifting eligibility across regions. 

Those with the time, technology and ability to hunt for available doses have had an advantage in the search. Workplace and mobile clinics, in-home vaccinations and pop-ups in at-risk neighbourhoods are working to close the vaccination gap. 

Now, half of all Ontarians have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Here are some of their stories:

Jabbed with AstraZeneca at a doctor’s office 

Andy Chalk had given up on searching for a COVID-19 vaccine at a local pharmacy after trying without success to work his way through the confusing maze of individual pharmacy websites and waitlists.

“It just seemed like a dead end, to be quite honest,” Chalk said by phone. “I figured I’d just wait until it was more widely available.”

As luck would have it, the 52-year-old based in Delhi, Ont., was able to tag along when his partner’s doctor started offering Oxford-AstraZeneca doses to patients.

A few hours after they both got jabbed, the province halted its use of the vaccine, citing the rare but serious blood clots associated with it.

"The timing was kind of amusing," Chalk recalled.

He said he'd be comfortable taking Oxford-AstraZeneca as a second dose, now that the province has resumed using the vaccine for that purpose. Chalk said he feels fortunate to have accessed the doctor's office clinic, but he's still floored by the amount of effort required to find a shot. 

"It does seem like a big hassle," he said. "You've really got to go to work to make this happen."


Booked at a mass vaccination clinic 

York Region’s vaccine booking system proved surprisingly efficient for Sterling Manusco. 

Relatives had struggled with the booking process earlier in year, finding it slow, inefficient and not intuitive, but the 22-year-old had only a two-minute wait when he became eligible on May 18. 

“There were probably a lot of kinks that were ironed out,” he said. “It was extremely efficient and fast.”

He logged in at 8:30 a.m., 30 minutes after eligibility opened to his age cohort, and his first Pfizer-BioNTech dose was in his arm just over 24 hours later.

The well-staffed mass vaccination clinic hosted at an arena near Manusco’s Newmarket, Ont, home ran like a well-oiled machine. He was in and out in 20 minutes.

“I'm impressed,” he said. “It must have been a lot of logistics that went into this.”


Pharmacy shot scouted through social media

Alan Harris spent a month searching for clinics open to people in his Toronto neighbourhood before snagging a Moderna shot at a nearby pharmacy. He called on a Saturday in May and was booked two days later.

The reality – and optimism for the future – set in after his shot, when the pharmacist congratulated him. 

“I had a big sigh of relief, and I got a bit choked up, too,” he said 

The 34-year-old found the opportunity through the volunteer-run Vaccine Hunters Canada Twitter account. He managed to beat the booking rush for his age demographic -- adults between the ages of 18 and 39 gained access to the provincial booking system on May 18, though some pharmacies began offering doses earlier.

Harris said he was appreciative but frustrated that he had to rely on a citizen-run social media account, rather than the provincial system, to find a vaccine.

“I would really love a spotlight put on these people that are running these accounts,” he said. “I’m very grateful.”


Text from a friend about a pop-up clinic

A friend texted Raymond Hoang that she’d just been vaccinated at a Windsor, Ont., pop-up clinic one day in early May. The line wasn't too long, she said, he should try to get a shot. 

Hoang rallied his family to come with him to the clinic, located about 15 minutes from their home. They waited in line for about an hour in the parking lot, decked out with chairs for people to sit and wait in.

Hoang, 25, and his brother snagged their first doses that day. His mother, who had been hopeful for a second shot, was denied. 

Hoang is a bit nervous about the uncertain timing of his second dose. He's been eyeing media reports about people seeking their second shots in the United States.

“We joke to our family about crossing the border,” he said. 


 Clinic for teenagers found through word of mouth

News about the pop-up clinic vaccinating teenagers was all over friends’ social media pages.

Sarah Paliwoda, her sister and a friend shared a ride to the clinic hosted in a Toronto school – one of the first in the city offering Pfizer-BioNTech shots to youth aged 12 and up ahead of the provincial schedule. 

They came right when the clinic opened and waited in the sun for two hours. The long line that wrapped around the building and down the street, with music blasting and some holding umbrellas for shade.

When Paliwoda’s turn finally came, it was “quick and easy,” the 15-year-old said.

“It’s definitely worth it. That little moment of pain and everything’s good from there,” she said. 

She was happy her age group’s vaccination turn came earlier than expected. She and her friends are looking forward to a more normal summer after a difficult year. 

“In and out of lockdowns has been hard, but you’ve got to get through it,” Paliwoda said. 


Vaccine Hunters and corporate clinics

Fifteen-year-old Luke Stronach of Oakville, Ont., got his shot of the Pfizer vaccine on last Friday from a clinic run by EllisDon, a construction company based out of Mississauga, Ont.

The company -- along with a few corporate partners -- had initially planned to offer the shots only to workers and their families, but after realizing their supply far outpaced demand, they opened it up to the broader community aged 12 and up, said Steve Chaplin, vice-president of health, safety and environmental.

Fifteen-thousand people have now made appointments at EllisDon's clinic. They're all booked up.

Stronach's mom booked the appointment for him, he said, after she read about it on the Vaccine Hunters Twitter account.

The page -- run by a group of volunteers -- aggregates vaccine appointment availability from various government sources, giving people a centralized place to go for information.

"I was looking forward to it so we can get this all behind us," he said. "I work in a grocery store so I thought I would get it a little bit earlier, but that never happened."


Wait lists and phone calls

Rick Comish, 59, got the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot with his wife in early April. At that point, the shot was being offered at numerous pharmacies and family doctors' offices in Ontario to anyone 55 and older.

Appointments could not be booked through the provincial system.

Since then, Ontario's minimum age of eligibility for the AstraZeneca vaccine dropped to 40, before use of the shot was paused altogether due to concerns around an extremely rare blood clotting disorder.

Comish, who lives in Toronto, said his wife had joined several pharmacies' wait lists, but never heard back.

It was only when she called a pharmacy directly that they were able to make an appointment.

"Talking live was the way to go," he said.

From there, it was a great experience, Comish said.

"It was very quick. There was no pain, and there were no after effects or side effects."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2021. 

Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press