Why many Canadians feel stuck in ‘limbo’ without COVID-19 vaccine 2nd-dose appointments

Edmonton resident Rory Armstrong received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine on March 15. But since then, he’s heard ‘absolutely nothing’ about how to get a second dose. (Peter Evans/CBC)

When Rory Armstrong became eligible for a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, he jumped at the chance to get it.

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The 61-year-old Edmonton resident got an AstraZeneca-Oxford shot at a hospital’s pop-up clinic on March 15, along with his wife that same week, and both felt fine afterwards — aside from a few aches and pains.

What’s been a concern in the months since, Armstrong says, is that the pair feel stuck in “limbo.” So far they haven’t received any information on when they’ll get a second dose, even though Alberta’s time frame to get another AstraZeneca shot is at least 12 weeks after the first dose and no later than four months.

“We’ve heard absolutely nothing,” he said, “and our due date is the first week of June.”

Canadians across the country have shared similar experiences with CBC News, citing a lack of information from local health officials, struggles trying to book second-dose appointments and confusion over a patchwork of different booking systems and access points — from pop-up clinics to mass immunization centres to pharmacies.

“There’s the fear: Are we going to get a second shot on time?” Armstrong said.

Second dose rates vary between regions

Right now, the second-dose situation varies widely among provinces and territories.

In Canada’s North, vaccination rates are the highest in the country: Close to 60 per cent of all Yukon residents are fully vaccinated with both doses, along with roughly half of all residents of the Northwest Territories and more than a third of Nunavut residents.

Among the provinces, the rate of those fully vaccinated is significantly lower, ranging from about two to seven per cent — with the Canada-wide average a little over three per cent.

Far more Canadians — nearly half the country — have been given a single dose.

That difference comes as most regions are currently following recommendations from the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) to delay second doses up to four months, which gave health-care providers a chance to offer protection to as many people as possible while vaccine shipments were sluggish.

Recently, NACI also gave its blessing to using Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine for Canadians as young as 12, with some provinces already opening appointments to that age group.

But Tania Watts, a professor of immunology at the University of Toronto, said second doses shouldn’t be on the backburner.

“We want to get this second dose on schedule to get the boost we all need,” Watts said.

“Now that we’ve got [more Canadians] at dose one, and they’re starting to vaccinate 12-year-olds, we really need to be — in parallel — getting those dose twos into people.”

Yet emails submitted to the Ask CBC News team from residents across the country have featured concerns ranging from second-dose appointments being cancelled through voicemail messages, to pharmacies not knowing when people can book, to struggles navigating how to get a much-needed booster shot for vulnerable people such as cancer patients.

‘I waited and waited and waited’

Much like Rory Armstrong, the Edmonton resident waiting for information about a second dose, 77-year-old Ottawa resident John Freeman said he’s also lacking an appointment and can’t get any details on the next steps.

Freeman said he tried to book an initial vaccination appointment through the province’s online system, but despite several tries, the website kept freezing.

He called his local public health officials instead, who booked him into a pop-up clinic near his home — and on March 28, both he and his wife got a first shot of the Pfizer vaccine.

But looking at his confirmation paperwork, Freeman was surprised to see that a line about his second appointment date was left blank. He said health-care workers on-site said they’d be in touch by email instead.

“I waited and waited and waited,” he told CBC News. “I thought I’d get an email within a few days, but up until now, I have not heard from them — zero.”

Bill Campbell, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Health, noted in an emailed statement that the province’s booking system requires second-dose appointments to be booked at the same time as first-dose appointments.

Meanwhile, anyone who gets a vaccine through other channels — such as pharmacies, hospitals or pop-up and mobile clinics — “will receive confirmation of their second-dose appointment before the four-month interval.”

In Alberta, Alberta Health Services (AHS) spokesperson Tom McMillan said pharmacies and AHS will contact residents directly, closer to their eligibility date, to book their next appointment — and when eligible, Albertans will also be able to book online or over the phone.

The Saskatchewan government, in contrast, has already released a tentative schedule for when people aged 45 and older may be able to book an appointment to receive their second dose, with those aged 85 and older already eligible, along with some at-risk individuals such as patients with cancer.

Many Canadians ‘frustrated’

Given the varying approaches between provinces, the range of booking systems and vaccination sites, and shifting recommendations on who’s eligible for a shot, it’s not surprising some Canadians are feeling confused.

Even Tania Watts, an expert on vaccines, is stuck in the same boat, not knowing when she’ll get her second dose after having a first round of AstraZeneca. Ontario’s booking website told her to check with her pharmacy — but Watts’s pharmacy couldn’t tell her anything either.

“A lot of people are frustrated,” she said.

Watts’s greater concern is that if people take months to get a second shot and perhaps slip through the cracks of the system, there could be more people testing positive for the virus as time passes after their first vaccine dose. Those breakthrough COVID-19 cases are typically mild but can be more serious for anyone elderly or immunocompromised.

“People who don’t get their boost for four months will get the benefit of the boost,” she stressed.

“But I’m most concerned about infection as immunity wanes over time, particularly in that oldest group.”

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