An untold number of B.C. parents are scrambling to reschedule COVID-19 bookings for their children under 12 after a government mistake forced cancellations at pharmacies across the province.
The error occurred as the B.C. government attempted to open up clinics in strategic locations so families and kids would have better access to vaccinations, said Ministry of Health spokesperson Thomas Hunt.
Hunt could not answer how many people have been affected by the cancelled bookings, but said the number of people under 12 booked into a pharmacy by mistake “is low.”
“We know parents are eager to get their kids vaccinated, but children under 12 who have accidentally been booked into pharmacies will have their appointments cancelled,” Hunt told Glacier Media in an email.
At a press conference Tuesday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry did not give an exact number of how many people had been affected.
"I think there was a small number [of cancellations] that I heard about," she said.
She noted her office was working with call centres and the online booking system to address the problem.
“They don't have the pediatric vaccines in pharmacies and it was not our intention to have pediatric vaccines in pharmacies in the near future,” said Henry, adding the pharmacies were being reserved to help with the provincial rollout of booster doses in the coming months.
Among those affected by the booking error was Mario Bartel, a Tri-City News reporter and father of a nine-year-old boy.
Bartel and his partner had booked their son for a COVID-19 vaccination on Dec. 12 at a nearby Walmart pharmacy, conveniently located not far from their New Westminster home.
At the time, Bartel said there was no indication the pharmacies were reserved to vaccinate those people 12 and over.
On Monday, Dec. 6, the father received an automated text message and email telling him he had cancelled his son’s booking. He hadn’t.
The Ministry of Health spokesperson said the automated email sent to parents would explain why the cancellation occurred and how to book another appointment.
But the email Bartel received from the ministry failed to answer any of his questions.
“There was no explanation as to why and how this happened in the first place,” he said.
A call to the pharmacy confirmed the booking was “a mistake” and that it was only vaccinating people 12 and up.
When Bartel attempted to re-book his appointment, he said most of the local sites previously available to his son were restricted to those 12 and over.
“Now, our options for getting Oscar the vaccine are extremely limited: nothing in New West and the closest is a drive-thru clinic at BCIT in Burnaby,” he said. “Seems like an odd choice to make young kids get a needle while sitting in the car.”
Bartel said he’s frustrated that his own son has to wait another nine days to get the vaccine. But he’s also worried about other parents who don’t have a vehicle or time to make a trip to another city.
“At this time, when accessibility is so important, they’re making it more difficult,” he said.
WHERE ARE CHILDREN GETTING VACCINATED IN B.C.?
As of Dec. 6, just over 33,000 of the roughly 350,000 eligible B.C. children between five and 11 had received one dose of the pediatric Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Another 115,000 children in that cohort had booked appointments by 1 p.m. Tuesday, according to Health Minister Adrian Dix.
Across B.C.'s five health authorities, many of the COVID-19 vaccination clinics for children five to 11 are being offered in public facilities. They range from an ICBC claims centre in North Vancouver to community centres across the Interior and in a few cases, such as Ladysmith and Pemberton, at public schools.
When asked how the province was ensuring access for parents who live far from such clinics or don't have a vehicle, Henry said public health teams are determining where children can get vaccinated based on each community's needs.
In some cases, that has meant vaccinations at schools, but based on feedback from parents, Henry said the province has no plans to roll out a widespread school-based vaccination program.
“What we're trying to do is tailor the pediatric clinics to the needs of parents in different communities and it varies a lot around the province,” she said. “And there has been some challenges, particularly in the last couple of weeks with road closures, with snow closures and a few other things.”
B.C. is not the only province to report mistakenly booking children into pharmacies for a COVID-19 vaccination. In November, at least 1,500 children had their bookings cancelled at several Alberta pharmacies after a similar error was made.
Elsewhere in the province, barriers to vaccinate children came from unexpected sources. In Prince George, RCMP officers cleared anti-vaccine protesters after they were found shouting intimidating, anti-vaccine slogans to people from their vehicles.
Northern Health spokesperson Eryn Collins said safety for the public and clinic staff is a top priority for the health authority.
“For children and families getting a vaccine, it can be intimidating enough without being followed or yelled at,” Collins said. “We are very appreciative of the presence of the RCMP.”
BOOSTER DOSES CONTINUE AMID OMICRON RISE
B.C.'s latest vaccination push comes as the province has identified five cases of the Omicron variant. First isolated by South African scientists, the variant has now been identified in over 50 countries.
In addition to the five cases already isolated in B.C., Henry said Tuesday that there are a number more "suspect and pending" confirmation.
The cases have all been found in people travelling to the province from places like Nigeria, South Africa and Iran — three who are fully vaccinated and two who are unvaccinated. Health authorities continue to conduct wastewater surveillance to assess the variants' community spread.
Dix said B.C. health authorities are focused on the Delta variant, which still accounts for an overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases in the province.
Meanwhile, the province's booster dose campaign continues. Using a risk-based approach, the oldest British Columbians are being targeted first, followed by cohorts all the way down to 16 years old. Invitations for a booster dose are being sent out six months to eight months after an individual's second dose.
So far, over 500,000 booster doses have been offered in B.C., including at all long-term care facilities, said Dix.
Booster doses are also now being offered to those with compromised immune systems, as well as Indigenous, Métis and Inuit people.
Henry said there are still too few cases of Omicron in B.C. to gauge how it responds to COVID-19 vaccines.
The latest National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommendations — which call for booster doses for those 15 and older — align well with what B.C.'s vaccine campaign has been "thinking all along," added the provincial health officer.
Do you have a child who had their COVID-19 vaccine booking cancelled? Get in touch with Stefan Labbé, firstname.lastname@example.org.
With files from Arthur Williams, Prince George Citizen