Sask. senior anxious to get 1st dose of COVID-19 vaccine, wants appointment process made clearer

Mary Lou Onyskevitch is like many other seniors in Saskatchewan: she is waiting for her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The 71-year-old is hoping to receive a call from the Saskatchewan Health Authority about her vaccination, but for the last couple of months, she’s also been inquiring about a shot for her 93-year-old neighbour, Gertie Lennox.

Under the first phase of the province’s vaccine rollout, all residents age 70 and over are eligible to be vaccinated.

Last month, when Onyskevitch heard vaccinations would be available near her home in Christopher Lake, about 170 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, she phoned to try to get herself, her 71-year-old husband and Lennox on the list.

She said she received an automated message that the available appointment slots were already full.

Recent government of Saskatchewan news releases have said those eligible for a vaccine in the first phase should not contact the health authority or government, but should wait to be contacted.

Onyskevitch said people in her community are being contacted and asked if they are 70 or older.

She thought the government would use information in its database to contact people based on age.

“It would have been extremely easy for them to pull that information and call people in order of their age. That, to me, would be far more efficient than having some volunteer make a list of people over 70 in their area.”

She’d like to get vaccinated so she can spend time with her neighbour, who she said has lived “without much company” during the pandemic.

Onyskevitch said Lennox’s son regularly visits, but she is not able to see her neighbour because current health orders prevent it.

“I also do Gertie’s foot care now that I can’t take her in for pedicures anymore. So I’m anxious to also get the vaccine so I can get over and visit my neighbour.”

Let people book appointments

Onyskevitch was relieved to learn Lennox received a call Monday to get her first vaccine dose in early March.

She said she knows people around her age in her community who have already received the full two doses.

The vaccination clinic in Christopher Lake was scheduled for Jan. 20. Onyskevitch was planning to go to see if she and her husband could receive a shot if someone who had booked decided not to attend.

“Then they changed the date to the 19th and apparently they were phoning people. However, I wasn’t told if you could be there in 20 minutes, you could get a vaccine because they had several no-shows,” she said.

“I think the whole thing has not been well planned or thought out at all.”

Onyskevitch said if the province is not going to call people based on age, it should let those over 70 put themselves on a list.

“If they want people to sign up for vaccines, put out a phone number and make it widely available and have people that want vaccines … be able to call in.”

SHA advertises clinic in north central

The first public vaccination clinics in Phase 1 were advertised on Jan. 13, with the health authority offering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to seniors living independently in Wakaw, Cudworth and Rosthern.

On Jan. 14, the SHA advertised vaccination clinics in eight communities in the north central region, including Christopher Lake, Birch Hills and Shellbrook.

“​The COVID-19 vaccine (Pfizer-BioNTech) is immediately available to Saskatchewan seniors over the age of 70 living in the north central area,” the health authority said. “Anyone meeting this general criterion is urged to call the below number(s) in to book a vaccination appointment immediately.”

Six hours after announcing the north central region clinics, the health authority sent out a news release saying they were booked full.

On Jan. 18, the SHA sent out a news release announcing vaccination clinics for those over 70 in Prince Albert.

The authority has not sent a public news release soliciting people to book an appointment for a vaccination clinic since then.

Saskatchewan’s most recent vaccination totals by region. More than 200,000 people will be part of the province’s Phase 1 vaccine plan, which includes long-term care residents and staff, select health-care workers and people over 70. (Government of Saskatchewan)

Premier Scott Moe and Chief Medical Health Officer Dr. Saqib Shahab were asked at a news conference Tuesday about the vaccine plan for those over 70. Moe directed specific questions to the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

The SHA was not included on the COVID-19 media conference call Tuesday.

Moe said he was not aware of specific instances where a vaccination clinic did operate as planned.

CBC has reached out to the health authority for comment on its Phase 1 vaccination plan.

Determining where vaccines go

Last month, Saskatchewan Health Authority CEO Scott Livingstone said the limited availability of vaccines and the logistics of handling the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — which needs to be refrigerated at extremely low temperatures — play a role in determining where the vaccines will go.

But so do transmission rates in an area, Livingstone said. 

“One of the other big factors in the distribution is the attack rates or the current caseload in those areas of the province, which also have a high likelihood for us to be successful in … dealing with the most vulnerable,” Livingstone said. 

The Ministry of Health added that locations are prioritized based on “a combination of risk criteria,” including an area’s outbreak rate.

The decisions of two key groups determine where vaccines will go, according to the ministry. 

“While priority sequencing is determined by the COVID-19 Immunization Planning Oversight Committee, specific locations and facilities are determined by local Integrated Health Incident Command Centres,” the ministry said.

The ministries of Health and Government Relations are represented on the oversight committee, as are the Saskatchewan Health Authority, the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency and Indigenous Services Canada.

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