Toronto turns to Vaccine Hunter volunteers to help fill spots at city-run clinics

Vaccine Hunters is one way the city is attempting to make it easier and simpler for people to get vaccinated.

Partnership with volunteer group the 1st of its kind in Canada

A post from Twitter account Vaccine Hunters Canada that shared details of a walk-in COVID-19 vaccination clinic at a Loblaws pharmacy in Ottawa on April 26, 2021. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

With Toronto expecting an influx of doses set to arrive next week, Mayor John Tory says the city is looking for more ways to get people vaccinated.

That's why the city is partnering with the volunteers behind the Twitter account Vaccine Hunters Canada to help residents find appointments at city-run clinics. 

The partnership comes as Dr. Eileen de Villa said the city's latest data shows 1,055 new COVID-19 cases in the last day. There are 1,121 Toronto patients in hospital and 242 in intensive care. The city also saw 13 more deaths.

De Villa said the public needs to remain vigilant, but there are some signs of improvement.

"We are moving in the right direction," she said. 

In preparation for brighter days, Toronto will soon allow businesses to open CafeTO spaces for when the province lifts it's stay at home order, Tory said. But until then, nobody is allowed to actually use them. 

Here's how the vaccine partnership will work

At the end of each day, the city will inform the volunteer group where spots remain open for the next day. The Vaccine Hunters Canada account will then tweet the openings out to its 200,000-and-growing followers @VaxHuntersCan.

There are only two clinics that currently have appointments available — Toronto Congress Centre and Cloverdale Mall. The city said it expects more to open up in the coming weeks as the province delivers more doses.

While the vaccine hunters will tweet out openings, residents must still make their appointment through the provincial booking system. Those who are eligible include: 

  • All those 60 years of age and older.

  • Pregnant women.

  • Child-care workers in licensed child-care settings.

  • Those 45 years of age and older who live in hot-spot neighbourhoods.

  • Teachers who live or work in hot-spot neighbourhoods.

However, pregnant women, child-care workers and teachers not in the eligible age range must call to book their appointment at 1-833-943-3900, rather than do so online. 

Is the vaccine booking system too complicated? 

Tory, speaking with reporters, said he's not embarrassed the city has turned to the volunteer group for help, or that it's indicative of a larger communications problem.

"This is a good news story," he said. "Our mandate is to use every single channel, every single resource, every volunteer, every set of legs and eyes and ears and brains ... to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible and to make it easy as possible." 

It's the vaccine eligibility rules that are complicated and daunting, not the appointment system, Tory said.

The provincial online booking system works "extremely well," said Toronto Fire Chief and head of Emergency Management Matthew Pegg, adding the website is intuitive, seamless and works nearly flawlessly. 

"It was the right decision for the city of Toronto," he said about the city going with the provincial system, rather than building its own as other health units have done.

The partnership with Vaccine Hunters is the first partnership of its kind in Canada, the city said in a statement. 

"We are honoured to be joining the City of Toronto's efforts to get the city vaccinated," said Vaccine Hunters Canada's Joshua Kalpin, in a statement.

 "We feel an urgent sense of duty to work together so we can protect the most vulnerable and rebuild our communities."

The group offered its services to the city on a volunteer basis, noting it does not accept donations and has no political, government or business ties.

Carlos Samuel lined up for a dose at a pop-up clinic at Albion Arena in Scarborough on Wednesday, with help from Vaccine Hunters. 

As some of his family members in Colombia are in the ICU with COVID-19, Samuel is eager to get vaccinated, but said he found it challenging to learn his options from the government's website. 

"But if you go on Twitter, (Vaccine Hunters) will help you. They have lots of information and it's pretty accurate," he said. 

Coun. Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Board of Health, acknowledged there is an "angst and pressure" people are feeling when trying to navigate the overly complicated system, which could've been simplified with a single website and phone number for all eligible residents. 

Vaccine Hunters is one way the city is attempting to make it easier and simpler for people to get vaccinated, he said, noting Toronto is already working with hospitals, pharmacies, community agencies and "neighbourhood vaccine ambassadors. 

"Do everything, partner with everybody and reduce every barrier. That's got to be the approach to make this vaccine campaign a success," said Cressy.

The city has administered 1.1 million vaccine doses, with thousands more to be given  at pop-up clinics in postal codes M1L, M3H and M1J. 

  • Find out if you're eligible for vaccination here.

Most pharmacies will be out of AstraZeneca by the weekend, said Justin Bates, CEO of the Ontario Pharmacists Association (OPA).

The good news is that eight Toronto pharmacies will begin offering Pfizer vaccines later this week, he said. The pilot program will run for two weeks. The OPA has not yet announced which pharmacies have been selected or if the age eligibility will change.

With files from Linda Ward and Michel Bolduc