Tiny Sharbot Lake, Ont., provides big dose of hope in 'very emotional' COVID-19 battle

The tiny Pharmasave in Sharbot Lake is the closest pharmacy to Ottawa that is part of Ontario's vaccine pilot. Supply quickly ran out, leaving more than 6,400 on a wait list.

Vaccination wait list of locals and outsiders grows to 6,400 after province opens eligibility for the shots

Schoolbus driver Cindy Marks, 61, admits she hates needles, but was pleased to get her COVID-19 vaccination at the Pharmasave in Sharbot Lake, Ont. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Cindy Marks scored one of the last available doses at the Pharmasave in her hometown of Sharbot Lake, Ont.

"I hate needles. I'll put that out there right now," she said.

But Marks was grateful for a chance to present her arm at the pharmacy in the small, Central Frontenac community. As a school bus driver, the 61-year-old is exposed to more than 40 children and teens each day. 

Pharmacist Sarah Swanson did the honours, wielding a loaded syringe filled with the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine.

Pharmacist Sarah Swanson and other staff at the Sharbot Lake Pharmasave have been working hard to manage the demand. All 500 doses they received have been given out, or assigned. That's not stopping people from signing up. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

The last two weeks have been a blur at this tiny pharmacy, one of the locations approved to participate in the province's pharmacy pilot program.

"We've had lots of tears in this room, tears of joy and relief that their life can start again," said Swanson. "They'll be able to see new grandbabies they've never seen before. It's very emotional."

But the Sharbot Lake pharmacy is also the closest pilot location to Ottawa. The province's website crunched postal codes and pointed thousands of people across eastern Ontario to the Pharmasave, which can allow only two customers inside at a time.

At first, Swanson was happy to welcome out-of-town 60- to 64-year-olds, because "finding 500 people in this area that were eligible for the shot has been somewhat challenging."

In addition to selling prescription drugs, over-the-counter remedies, greeting cards and giftware, this tiny pharmacy is a purveyor of hope, as one of the sites for Ontario's pilot vaccine program. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

But on Monday, the province opened the pharmacy pilot to anyone over 60, meaning thousands more people — locals and outsiders — were looking to Swanson for a jab. 

"It became very difficult to try and support our locals."

As of Wednesday, there were 6,400 people on the wait list. 

"The telephones have been absolutely insane," said Swanson. "We have no doses left to offer anybody else. People are constantly calling, asking when we're getting more."

Robert Veley, 80, has received his first vaccination, with an appointment in June for his second. He thinks locals should have first dibs on the doses. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Some locals aren't happy about the influx of vaccine seekers. 

"It's not only here; it's at pharmacies in Kingston," said Robert Veley, 80, who lives in nearby Tichborne, Ont. "People are coming who are not even registered and they've been turning them away. People should wait until it's in their area."

Veley, a mechanic, said he can spot out-of-town cars but the outsiders keep a low profile.

"They keep out of sight. They don't want to be seen, because they're out of the area."

Liz Norton also has her first shot, and wants her neighbours at the front of the line.  

"We should do our community first. We all need to be safe here. We have so many out-of-towners coming in," said Norton.

Sharbot Lake's population is generally around 1,400, but as a popular cottage destination, it doubles or triples in size in the summer.

"It's coming up to that time of year. Last summer, we had all kinds of them come in," said Norton. "It's not fair that everybody else gets to come in and we have to take that risk."

Sharbot Lake, Ont., with its major population centre (1,413) in the amalgamated township of Central Frontenac, is 75 km north of Kingston and 123 km west of Ottawa. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Originally from Ottawa, Francine Wilkes was a seasonal resident of Sharbot Lake for more than 30 years before retiring to the area permanently a year ago.  

"People should wait their turn," said Wilkes. She has a personal stake in the excessive demand for a shot from Sharbot Lake. "I'm on that waiting list."

But she's sanguine about the delay.

"It'll come in time," said Wilkes.

She would have preferred that "hometowners" were called up first, but is optimistic she can stay safe until her number is called.

Neil Purcell of Arden, Ont., is one of 6,400 people on a wait list to get a shot against COVID-19, at the Pharmasave in Sharbot Lake, Ont. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Neil Purcell is also in the queue.

"My sleeve has been rolled up for the last couple of months. Yeah, I'm ready for it," said Purcell, who was wearing an N95 mask in the Sharbot Lake pharmacy. 

He drove 30 kilometres from his home in Arden, Ont., to try to learn where he is among the 6,400 people on the wait list.

"I was just trying to get some sense of when this might be, whether it's a week or a month or unknown." 

He understands why Ottawans would drive more than an hour away to get the shot.

"I guess we do what we need to do these days."

Debbie Moon packages the ribs-n-sauce lunch special at the grocery store across the street from the pharmacy. She's helped vaccine seekers from Ottawa with tips on local attractions. (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Debbie Moon works in the busy bakery and deli department of the local grocery store, and has a lot of exposure to customers, so was very grateful to receive her first vaccination.

"Right across the street at the pharmacy. It was very well run. They were taking one at a time and it went very smoothly," said Moon, 64.

She says she's noticed various people coming in from out of town.. 

"They've come in and said, 'We're in town to get our shots,' They want to know where the restaurants are," said Moon, who isn't bothered by vaccine tourists.

"Anybody who's eligible to get one, wherever they need to go get it, is fine by me. The pharmacy is trying their best to look after the locals, too."

Central Frontenac Mayor Frances Smith, in front of the township office in Sharbot Lake, says, 'We want everyone in the province of Ontario and the world to get vaccinated.' (Hallie Cotnam/CBC)

Frances Smith is mayor of Central Frontenac and chair of the Sharbot Lake Family Health Team that's directly involved with the vaccination rollout.

Smith didn't realize the extent to which the vaccine pilot would act as a beacon for out-of-towners, but the local medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore, told her "it's a provincial program and that we really cannot stop people from other areas from coming in."

Bottom line, Smith welcomes them.

"It's herd immunity. We want everyone in the province of Ontario and the world to get vaccinated.

"We really hoped that our folks would come first, but I think eventually everyone will be vaccinated," said Smith, pointing out that many locals have already received their shots at the pharmacy.

"We're all in this together. So let's get it done. The more needles and arms, the better for all of us." 

The tiny Pharmasave in Sharbot Lake is the closest pharmacy to Ottawa that is part of Ontario's vaccine pilot, so far. Supply quickly ran out, leaving more than 6,400 people on a wait list. 9:36