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OPINION: Can something be happening 'across Ontario' if it's not happening in Algoma?

Yesterday, Doug Ford declared that 'ALL INDIVIDUALS' 18 and up would be able to book a vaccine as of today. Us too?
Today's the day, according to the province, that all adults in Ontario are eligible to book a shot. But does that really mean us?

Does anyone else's head hurt when they think about the way the vaccine roll-out is being communicated in Algoma?

Mine does. Particularly after Monday's news cycle.

Let's start with the first, and most obvious, cause of my cranial discomfort: The provincial announcement that COVID-19 vaccine eligibility has been lowered to 18+ 'across Ontario' as of tomorrow.

My first thought was: Aren't we just now starting to allow the 50+ to start registering for the shot here in the Sault/Algoma?

But then I quickly remembered — This probably doesn't apply to us.

We've become used to not knowing for sure whether a 'provincewide' vaccine announcement would really apply to Algoma at the same time it does in the rest of Ontario. The way the announcements are worded they should apply to us. But we're pretty sure they don't.

It has become routine for our newsroom to qualify our coverage of these announcements with a note explaining that Algoma Public Health has yet to announce when or if this applies to us. Its not ideal, but it's the best we can do without any concrete information available to us.

When it was widely reported last week that anyone in Ontario who is 40+ could sign up for their shot, it turned out that didn't apply to Algoma, which, for reasons unknown to me, uses its own (reportedly frustrating) booking system and only opened registrations to the 50+ last night.

Back in April, the province announced that pregnant women in Ontario could register for the vaccine. Presumably that meant all of Ontario, but there was no response when we asked when that would roll out in Algoma and it wasn't until seven days later that APH announced eligibility for pregnant women.

So I think it's reasonable that we're skeptical about this latest announcement. In fact, I have written the government's communications department to ask whether it is a mistake they should correct on their end.

Here are a few of the headlines Monday's provincial announcement generated:

  • All adults in Ontario eligible to book COVID-19 vaccine appointments
  • All Ontario residents 18+ can book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment starting Tuesday
  • Ontario opening COVID-19 vaccine appointments for those 18+ starting Tuesday

And then there's this from our own feed from The Canadian Press this morning: All adults in Ontario eligible to book COVID-19 vaccine appointments today

I don't blame these outlets for reporting it this way. That's the official word from the province. But can we really say the age limit is dropping to 18+ 'across Ontario' when one health unit — Algoma Public Health — is at least two weeks behind schedule?

I am advised the province is 'looking into it'.

Perhaps, APH will surprise us today and announce a new booking time for the 18+. But how far off will it be, and who will beat the rush?

I'm not sure about you, but the picture painted by the social media posts I saw last night was of 50+ Saultites with one eye on the online booking system and a phone to their ear as they tried to be one of the lucky 7,000 to get a booking.

Our health unit, after all, doesn't use the book-on-demand provincial system nor does it, like some other health units that operate their own booking systems, allow people to pre-register at a time of their choosing and wait to be invited to make an appointment. If you live in Guelph, for instance, you can register ahead whenever you want as long as you're over 12.

I pored extensively over the Ontario government's COVID-19 vaccine website while trying to wrap my head around the local vaccine situation, which is where I discovered something else that boggled my mind.

The province does have a spot where you can check out what pharmacies are offering the vaccine and book online. Naturally, it starts with a list of cities that doesn't include Sault Ste. Marie.

There's nothing to indicate that Algoma folk should look elsewhere, so I dug deeper, plugging a local postal code into the province's pharmacy lookup.

I was momentarily pleased not to have been directed to my own health unit's website, but instead to see 20 results.

Not a single one of them was within a five-hour drive of the Sault, of course. In fact, the closest was in Midland, almost six hours away by car.

Now, I know, because I helped report this last week, that there is, in fact, a long list of pharmacies right here in the Sault approved to administer the vaccine. But if they're not going to make the provincial list, why on earth could the province not do us a favour and point us in the direction of APH's list?

Bizarrely, APH, above its own list of pharmacies, offers a link to book online, but that link appears to suggest we travel outside of our health district to get the vaccine as it takes you right back to the same provincial page I described above. No local pharmacies to be found.

And while we're on the subject of the bizarre: APH's website does actually claim that one local pharmacy is offering the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine to the 18+. Maybe it's worth a try.

Listen, I'm not saying that Algoma Public Health and the province aren't going to get the shot to everybody who needs it.

While Algoma region's COVID-19 first-shot vaccination rate (as May 8) may be the worst in the North at 33.7 per cent, our Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Jennifer Loo, tells us that based on expected vaccine deliveries in the near future, we can expect to have 60 per cent of the population vaccinated by the end of May. I think that's great, and I'm fully behind APH's effort to get there so that we can join other parts of the world that are starting to emerge from pandemic measures.

But it's hard to feel confident when we seem to be operating under regional and provincial timelines and booking systems that don't appear to acknowledge the existence of the other.