Ontario COVID-19 vax portal launches with tens of thousands of bookings, some errors Dee Burman

Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine portal launched Monday with tens of thousands of people aged 80 and older booking their appointments, while the province promised to resolve technical issues many users reported.

The government said more than 63,000 people had booked vaccine appointments by early afternoon.

Premier Doug Ford said any “bumps in the road, or wrinkles in the system” would be taken care of immediately.

“I’m just very grateful that the system never crashed,” he told a news conference. “That’s what I’m shocked about, actually.”

Residents who are eligible to get vaccinated can book online at www.ontario.ca/bookvaccine, while those wishing to schedule by phone can call 1-888-999-6488.

The online booking system and call centre went live at 8 a.m., and the site showed more than 8,000 people in the queue for an appointment a few minutes later, with an estimated wait time of about an hour.

The lineup appeared to grow quickly, with some who went on the site shortly afterwards reporting a longer estimated wait time.

Several health units reported issues with the new system, saying they were working with the province to address the problems.

“Please do not attempt to book an appointment at this time,” the Grey Bruce Health Unit in southern Ontario told local residents just hours after the booking system went live. It said system issues had resulted in booking errors.

The Simcoe-Muskoka Health Unit said some people were encountering error messages that indicated no local appointments were available through the booking site for its region. It said the province had not finished inputting all of its clinics and was hoping to resolve the issue later Monday.

Elsewhere, users reported seeing error messages after filling out the website’s vaccine booking forms.

Eric Weichel logged onto the site at 9 a.m. from his home in North Bay, Ont., in a co-ordinated effort with his mother, who helped from Parry Sound, Ont., and another friend who tried from a cell phone in Guelph, Ont. They were all trying to get an appointment for Weichel’s 85-year-old grandmother, Hazel Wager.

After getting into the queue and filling out basic information like date of birth and postal code, all three kept getting the same message, a blank screen with just the words “form has been tampered with.”

Weichel said his mother then tried the phone number, but gave up after nine attempts to get through. He said he finally was able to book an appointment through the website at 3 p.m., six hours after he started.

His grandmother has her first shot scheduled for next Monday in Parry Sound, Ont., and her second shot appointment in July, he said.

“I’m so excited to hug her after she gets her vaccine,” Weichel said in an interview.

Others who went onto the site shared their successes on social media.

“My in-laws (with the help of their doting son) both got COVID-19 vaccine appointments for next Tuesday at City Hall. I can’t believe how happy and relieved I am,” one Ottawa resident said on Twitter.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Health said the government was aware of the technical issues some users were encountering and urged them to book an appointment using the Provincial Vaccine Information Line instead.

Some of Ontario’s 34 public health units have already established their own systems for booking vaccination appointments, but the provincial portal will either enhance or replace those setups in many areas.

The province reported Monday that a total of 1,191,553 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been given out in Ontario so far.

But even as the vaccination drive ramps up, some regions of the province are still dealing with a troubling number of COVID-19 cases.

Sarnia-Lambton moved into the “grey lockdown” stage of the province’s colour-coded pandemic response framework on Monday following a spike in local infections.

Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley wrote to Ford Monday, asking that in future, any region moved into lockdown by the province should be given priority access to COVID-19 vaccines.

“It is a simple step your government can take immediately that would alleviate and diminish the distress as we enter the “Grey Lockdown Zone” and give people here optimism and hope for the future,” Bradley said.

Meanwhile, Ford confirmed Monday that the head of Ontario’s vaccine task force will be leaving the job in a few weeks.

Retired general Rick Hillier’s contract expires on March 31, at which point he will leave the role.

The province has faced criticism about the slow rollout of the COVID-19 immunization process but Ford has said the vaccine effort depends on supplies provided by the federal government.

Ontario reported 1,268 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday and nine more deaths linked to the virus.

With files from Liam Casey

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