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Thousands of Ontarians book vaccine appointments within hours of expanded eligibility

TORONTO — There were reports of long waits and technical glitches as Ontario widened vaccine eligibility for more than 100 COVID-19 hot spots on Monday, but the province’s health minister said the government was “pleased” that thousands were able to book an appointment to get their first dose. 

More than 73,000 appointments were booked in the first two hours after the province expanded eligibility to include anyone 18 or older in 114 designated areas Monday morning, Christine Elliott said. 

The province’s online booking system "held up" during the surge of interest, Elliott said, and people who had technical issues should try to book again. 

"You will get an appointment, but I am sorry about the problems people are having now," Elliott told reporters. 

Some social media users said they logged on early in the day but still came up empty, as the provincial site showed tens of thousands of users in the queue minutes after bookings opened.

Others reported technical errors with the site itself.

Jessica Mazze, 20, was eager to book a shot on Monday after spending weeks checking community clinics for vaccine availability in her Toronto neighbourhood.

The Ryerson University student was expecting the provincial site to be busy, but she was frustrated when she was unable to book online because the postal code on her health card didn't match her current residence.

Multiple calls to the provincial phone line eventually got her an appointment for the end of the month, leaving Mazze relieved but disappointed with the technical issues.

"Thankfully, end of the day, I got the appointment. But I was just extremely frustrated with the whole process," she said by phone on Monday.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said confusion booking an appointment to get a COVID-19 shot could have been avoided had the government done more advance planning.

“It’s been pretty disappointing to watch his government flail around when it comes to finding ways for people to easily access appointments for their shots,” Horwath said.

“I think today’s failure is yet another example of a government that completely … didn’t do the planning early enough.”

Liberal House Leader John Fraser said the rush to book Monday morning and the delays were all avoidable.

“Look at the kind of challenges people are having finding a vaccine, finding a place to get a vaccine,” Fraser said.

“People are crowdsourcing stuff online. That’s incredible … The most important thing for government to do is make sure that it’s organized.”

This week and next, the province will send half its vaccine supply to the hot spot areas, based on recommendations from the government’s science advisers. 

Adults in some neighbourhoods had already been able to make vaccine appointments, but not through the province’s online booking portal. 

One Toronto-area region said on the weekend it would open up more bookings for those who live or work in hot spots starting Tuesday, but warned it was limited by supply issues.

“Due to a vaccine shortage, York Region is not booking those between the ages of 18 and 34 who live in high priority communities and residents age 50-59. These groups can book through the provincial booking system soon,” York Public Health said in a statement.

Eligibility expands further across Ontario on Thursday, when online bookings open up to all residents aged 50 and over.

People with high-risk health conditions and some groups who can’t work from home will also become eligible. 

Ontario has said it expects everyone aged 18 and over to be able to book a vaccine appointment by the end of May.

The province reported 3,436 new COVID-19 cases on Monday and 16 more deaths linked to the virus.

The Ministry of Health said 1,925 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, but noted that more than 10 per cent of hospitals did not submit data to the province over the weekend.

There were 889 people in intensive care because of the virus and 611 people on a ventilator.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2021. 

Holly McKenzie-Sutter and Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press