TORONTO — Appointments for COVID-19 boosters were snapped up quickly as Ontario expanded eligibility for the shots on Monday, leaving many residents frustrated at being unable to secure a third dose or having to book one weeks into the new year.
Bookings via the provincial portal opened to residents between the ages of 18 and 49 – about 10.5 million people – provided it had been at least three months since their second shot. Premier Doug Ford has touted the sped-up booster rollout as central to the fight against the highly contagious Omicron variant, which is driving a surge in cases.
The government said more than 125,000 third-dose appointments were booked through its online portal as of 10 a.m., but many residents said they had trouble finding shots in their regions in the coming days. Some health units said they quickly ran out of appointments and others said they were focusing on shots for more vulnerable groups.
Ottawa resident Clement Law said he logged onto the provincial site a few minutes before 8 a.m. Monday, when it was supposed to officially open, and was placed in a virtual lineup that lasted more than an hour. When he eventually gained access to the system, Law said there were no appointments available in his area.
"I put in my address to find the closest one and nothing shows up under 25 kilometres, nothing under 50, nothing under 100," he said in a phone interview.
"Then, funny enough, I looked at 200 kilometres (away), which is kind of ridiculous, but it was like Belleville is open in January."
Law said he planned to wait for Ottawa Public Health to announce more appointments and was also on the waitlist for a booster at some pharmacies, which have their own booking systems.
Health officials in Ottawa said Monday that all available spots had been reserved roughly 15 minutes after the expanded eligibility officially took effect.
"We apologize for the inconvenience & are working hard to add more capacity and availability," Ottawa Public Health tweeted.
Demand also appeared to outstrip capacity in the Niagara Region, where the public health unit said Sunday night that all booster appointments for Monday and Tuesday had already been snapped up.
Similarly, the Southwestern Public Health Unit said that as of 11:15 a.m., there were no vaccinations appointments available until Jan. 17, with efforts underway to increase capacity.
Meanwhile, York Region in the Toronto area said it was prioritizing first and second doses for children aged five to 11 and high-risk residents, with no walk-ins for third doses. It also said booster doses would be more available for people aged 18 to 49 once public health was "able to meet the age 50+ population demand as they are most vulnerable."
In Simcoe-Muskoka, the health unit said walk-in clinics would be reserved for people getting first and second shots and high-risk groups eligible for boosters, including people 50 and older.
Some regions using their own booking systems also reported technical issues due to high demand. The health unit covering Guelph, Ont., advised of online booking challenges, and tweeted that its phone help line was experiencing high call volumes. The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit said late Monday morning that its website was down "due to extremely high traffic."
Long line-ups were also reported at some pop-up vaccination sites Monday.
In Toronto, Christine Odunlami was able to secure a booster for late January after learning via Twitter that the provincial portal was accessible hours earlier than its official opening time. But despite logging in at 2:45 a.m., the earliest available appointment was still weeks away, said Odunlami, who has asthma.
"I feel fortunate that at least I was able to get something, but being someone that has a respiratory disease, that seems like a long time for me to wait," she said.
Odunlami said she decided to cancel holiday plans with family she hasn't seen in nearly two years because she's worried about Ontario's surge in cases and won't have her booster this month.
"This should've been something rolled out much sooner," she said of the booster effort.
Claire Biddiscombe, a secondary school teacher in Ottawa, said she learned from a Facebook group that the booking system was open to teachers on Sunday night. She logged on and was able to secure a booster for early January.
"I remembered what it was like trying to get my first dose appointment, so I just grabbed one, and found out later that I could've booked it earlier, but I just kind of held on to it," she said.
Biddiscombe said having a booster ahead of school resuming in January will be a relief but added that she recognized many were still scrambling to book their third doses.
"I'm feeling like incredibly lucky, but at the same time, it's entirely because of a network and a grapevine," she said. "It just really highlights to me how much harder this must be for people who are isolated ... there's no way it should be like that."
A spokeswoman for Health Minister Christine Elliott said public health units were "actively working to add appointments to the booking system" as the province ramps up vaccination capacity, aiming for between 200,000 and 300,000 doses per day.
Ontario reported 3,784 new COVID-19 cases on Monday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 20, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Noushin Ziafati and Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press