Accessing vaccine like an 'obstacle course' as call line overwhelmed: critical care doctor

A critical-care doctor in Winnipeg says he had to call hundreds of times to book an appointment for the first round of COVID-19 vaccines earmarked for front-line health-care workers in Manitoba.

Province says system flooded with ineligible callers, while doctor says he called 400 times

About 450 of the province's 900 vaccines meant for front-line heath-care workers over the age of 50 are spoken for. (Frank Augstein/Reuters)

At least one critical-care doctor in Winnipeg says he had to call hundreds of times to book an appointment for the first round of COVID-19 vaccines earmarked for front-line health-care workers in Manitoba — delays in the booking system that the provincial government blames on calls from those who are not eligible.

Eligible workers have only been able to call to book appointments for about 24 hours, and in that time the province says more than 100,000 people have called, and most were turned away, according to a government release issued on Sunday.

"The province is asking for the co-operation of all Manitobans to review the eligibility criteria before calling to request an appointment as to not overwhelm booking systems and to reserve vaccination appointments for those who need it most," the release says.

But Dr. Dan Roberts, who works at the Health Sciences Centre, says he doesn't buy that the system was overloaded by calls from people who weren't eligible because the criteria was made very clear.

He says the high volume of calls the province received were likely because he and several of his colleagues had to try multiple times to get through in the first place.

"That's an idiotic response," said Roberts.

"They claim that they had over 100,000 calls, so if you have 500 eligible people who called 200 times — and I called over 400 times — then that accounts for that number."

Doctor says he was kicked off call multiple times

Roberts said he tried for roughly 12 hours on Saturday and Sunday to get through and was kicked off the line multiple times.

"It's frustrating. It's very disrespectful," said Roberts

"You'd get through and they'd play piano music for about eight minutes and 30 seconds and then they'd kick you off the line. So that happened to me about probably 75 times," said the 67-year-old, who meets the eligiblity criteria to receive the vaccine.

He said other times he'd get through just to have the automated system tell him it couldn't understand his responses.

"They would tell you they didn't hear you … and then they'd kick you off the line, the line would go dead," he said.

Dr. Dan Roberts is a critical care physician at the Health Sciences Centre. The 67-year-old says he spent 12 hours over the weekend trying to make an appointment to receive one of 900 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. (Empire Photography)

According to the province, the line is supposed to be open 24/7 but Roberts said they stopped taking calls at 4 p.m. Saturday. 

"After the probably 400th call, at 4:01 they were closed and said they would re-open at 6 a.m. [Sunday] morning," he said.

"So I set my alarm clock for 5:55 and began calling shortly before six and still was unable to get through."

Roberts said he was finally able to book an appointment around 10 a.m. on Sunday — four hours after he initially started trying on that day.

Enough vaccine for 900 critical-care workers

To be eligible for the first round of vaccine doses, health-care workers must work in direct contact with patients and meet additional criteria, according to a memo from Manitoba's Vaccine Implementation Task Force issued late Friday.

They must also meet one of the following criteria: work in critical-care units and were born on or before Dec. 31, 1970; work in acute care and long-term care facilities and were born on or before Dec. 31, 1960; or are assigned to COVID-19 immunization clinics, the province's release says.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved for use by Health Canada earlier this week. The province had previously announced that around 900 critical-care workers will receive Manitoba's initial doses of the vaccine.

So far, about half of those vaccines are spoken for.

The province says it will keep Manitobans up to date when more vaccines are available.

System ran like a lottery: Doctor

While Roberts had the day off and was able to take the time to call the number repeatedly, he feels for the health-care workers who were working and wouldn't have the time.

"Especially nurses in critical care who are having the toughest time, to put them through this kind of nonsense ordeal is very callous," he said.

"They've been working their butts off and to have to spend the weekend trying to play this obstacle course that the government set up, it just shows you the lack of forethought and caring that they seem to have," said Roberts.

The doctor said he made several complaints to his superiors at Shared Health and hopes there will be some accountability for how this was handled.

He says the onus never should have been on health-care workers to call in and try and reserve a spot, but rather should have been decided based on eligibility and risk factors. Roberts said that information could have been gathered through an online form and put in order of most at risk, delivering the vaccine to those who need it most. 

"That would have been a civilized way of doing it, instead they ran what appeared to be an insane lottery," he said.