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Eager for vaccine, Alberta health workers frustrated by suggestion they're not booking appointments

Health-care workers in Alberta say they're frustrated after both the province's chief medical officer of health and the health minister implied they weren't signing up for vaccinations as the doses become available. 

Thousands of open weekend appointments came as a surprise to many eligible staff

Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, suggested health-care workers were not signing up for available vaccine appointments this weekend, but notice of the extra doses wasn't sent out until Thursday afternoon. (The Canadian Press)

Health-care workers in Alberta say they're frustrated after the province's chief medical officer of health implied they weren't signing up for vaccinations as the doses become available. 

Prior to an update on the pandemic in Alberta on Thursday afternoon, Dr. Deena Hinshaw sent out a tweet saying there was space for 16,000 vaccinations for health-care workers this weekend and only 799 people had made appointments. 

"Front-line health-care workers across this province have been pushing relentlessly for months to get to this point. If you are eligible health-care workers, please do not delay — check your email and book your appointment as soon as possible," she wrote. 

"This will help protect your patients, your colleagues and yourself."

The availability of all of those vaccine spots came as a surprise to many who are eligible, and eager, for the shot.

Not able to register for weekend

"I was very excited when I got my email on Tuesday, and I signed up immediately," said Dr. Rachel Schacher. 

"And I felt that the comments painted a picture of physicians being irresponsible or not thankful for, you know, the opportunity to have the vaccine when, in fact, everyone I know who has received an eligibility email has signed up, and we were not aware of all these open spots."

Health-care workers who are eligible for the vaccine in the first round of immunizations cannot register for the jab until they are emailed a unique link to register online. 

Schacher was booked for an appointment on Jan. 26 and tried to change her appointment to this weekend after hearing Hinshaw's comments and receiving an email regarding the open spots. 

Like many, she hit a glitch on the Alberta Health Services website that prevented her from doing so and it took until Friday afternoon for her appointment to be changed to Jan. 20. 

Others say they still haven't received an email allowing them to register. 

Change in tone

On Wednesday, AHS sent an email to employees urging them to be patient with the vaccine rollout and that their turn would come. By Thursday afternoon, that message had changed and AHS was now urging anyone who could get a vaccine this weekend to do so. 

"Given uncertainty with vaccine supply from the federal government, AHS is actively pushing for bookings when we know we have vaccine," AHS said in response to questions from CBC News. 

"We have vaccine for this weekend, and are therefore strongly encouraging eligible health-care workers to get vaccinated as soon as possible."

AHS said on Friday afternoon that 5,000 workers have signed up since they put out the call for this weekend and also acknowledged a "technical issue" with its online booking website on Thursday that has now been fixed. 

It said there are vaccine doses for this weekend, but says it still needs more. 

AHS said emails to eligible staff are being sent out in batches and some will receive their links sooner than others and the process takes time. 

It says it originally gave staff a three-week window to book appointments but changed that to five days due to uncertainty with supply and that "resulted in a high number of open appointments this weekend."

Eligible, but still waiting for turn

Dr. Angie Karlos said she still has not received an email allowing her to register for the vaccine, even though she is eligible during the first wave. 

"All of us were so eager to get our vaccine as quickly as possible, and especially yesterday, knowing that I've been waiting and checking my email every five minutes for my opportunity to book, it was really frustrating hearing that I am eligible and I still haven't received that email, but there are all these open spots," she said. 

Karlos called AHS to see if she could fill one of the empty spots this weekend and was finally able to get an appointment, but not until Jan. 20. 

Dr. Zuzana Triska  is in a similar situation, saying she still hasn't received her email and currently has no appointment despite her eagerness to get the shot. 

"So it just makes me wonder — and I know, I'm not alone in this — whether there's some kind of a communication and administrative breakdown," she said.  

"On the one hand, we've got health officials calling upon us to urgently booked our vaccines, and on the other hand, there are a lot of us just sitting on the sidelines unable to access the booking system."

Union calls process 'chaotic and disorganized'

Danielle Larivee, with the United Nurses of Alberta, says that matches what she's hearing from members. 

"Certainly what we've been hearing from members is that it's very chaotic and disorganized, and there's a lot of miscommunication going on," she said. 

"And, you know, it's pretty crazy, actually, that AHS was so disorganized that they actually had to — through a news conference and through Twitter — start soliciting appointments, when AHS is the one who's supposed to be organizing everyone and pulling these appointments together." 

Dr. Triska says despite her frustration, there is room for some understanding. 

"Maybe it's an unreasonable expectation that, you know, we will have a well-oiled booking machine, because this is something that's unprecedented — to be rolling out vaccines as fast on such a large scale," she said. 

"So maybe some growing pains are to be expected, but at the same time, it seems like a booking glitch should be something that should be fairly easily fixed with today's technology."

With files from Jennifer Lee.

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