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A review of Ottawa’s H1N1 vaccination clinics

October 27th, 2009 | Posted by Amy Boughner in Issues | Personal

Yesterday I decided to line up to get vaccinated against H1N1. The vaccine was just being rolled out in this city and I happen to be in one of the high-risk groups (pregnant and more than 20 weeks along, as well as being a woman in my 20s) so I decided that yes, I would get the shot, and I would try to get it on the first day of clinics.

The City of Ottawa seemed well prepared for the clinics – they even set up a Twitter account to help people keep track of line-ups and wait times at the various locations around the city.

But information was sadly lacking throughout my entire experience waiting for my shot yesterday.

The ottawahealth Twitter account didn’t update during the day, until about 3 pm, and then it was only to tell people that the clinics open at that time couldn’t accept any more patients. I call not telling people what’s going on until there are massive problems a fail.

We showed up at one of the clinics scheduled from 5 to 9 right at 5 o’clock to a line already winding away from the building. It was cold yesterday and the line barely moved for an hour. They handed out numbers to everyone in line, but they did so wordlessly, so I wasn’t sure if they were calling out numbers inside, or if they were just trying to maintain some order – or appear to be maintaining order. Of course, we learned later that they were never checking the order of the numbers, and when one of the officials was asked about it, it didn’t seem to have occured to them.

Around 6 pm, just when I couldn’t feel my hands and I was wondering if we needed to leave – and, as I already noted to my husband – right before the cameras went live for th 6 o’clock news – they gathered us all inside and out of the cold.┬áBut still, forcing the most vulnerable people – pregnant women, small children, the elderly and people with chronic conditions – to stand outside for an hour in the cold, is something I consider fail number two.

Fail number three would be forcing those same people to wait for hours on end without access to chairs. There were a few scattered around the line, and the people around me took turns sitting when our part of the line reached them, but on one occasion I had to sit on the floor to avoid just falling over, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to get back up.

Fail number four is the real story of what needs to improve today and throughout the rest of this vaccine roll-out: They failed to share information with us, and when information was shared, it was contradicted and just plain wrong.

When we arrived, there was information going down the line that they expected to vaccinate 200 people per hour – I, stupidly, assumed that they were basing this on how the other clinics had been operating not on absolutely no information at all. Once they got us all inside, they told us that they had handed out 450 numbers. We thought we were doing okay.

The second time someone came to talk to us they told us we had another two-hour wait ahead of us, and if we wanted to leave they would honour our numbers the next day – with the caveat that if everyone in line ahead of you decided to leave, you would still be behind them when you came back the next day.

Then came the point when we found out that they hadn’t handed 450 numbers, they had handed out numbers starting in the 800s, meaning that 000 was actually somewhere in the 200s, and my 337 put me somewhere in the 500s. But at that point, we had already been there for two hours, and it had been some time since we had been told that it would be two more, so I didn’t want to leave without getting my shot.

And then we got to the point in the line where the people who had gone all the way through – to registration, vaccination and the 15 minute wait after getting the shot – starting passing by us. One women told us that she had waited three-and-a-half hours from the point in front of the elevators where we were standing (apparently people had started lining up before 4 pm for this clinic that opened at 5).

It was almost 8 pm and the officials running the clinic told us that if we had a number, they would get to us by 10 pm (though when asked for a guarantee, they would waffle), the security guard was telling us he was supposed to get everyone out of the building by 9 pm, and the people leaving the line were telling us we had at least a three-hour wait ahead of us. It didn’t add up, and when pressed to answer questions, one woman would say she just had to go and talk to someone to clarify and then disappear without giving us answers.

It seemed as though the only people who wanted to give us any answers were unable to get any themselves.

When we got closer to the front of the line – which ended in the registration section, before you sat down to wait for your name to be called, before you sat down in the vaccination section and waited for someone to be free to give you the shot – I had expected to see someone keeping track of people, someone with a stopwatch or a counter – assuming that they were trying to learn some lessons from this first night, but there was no one. This means that they have no one of giving people who show up tonight a better idea of how long the wait will be from various points in the line, they don’t know how many people showed up or how many they actually processed. They will be no better off based on our experiences and frustrations, and that is the biggest fail of all.

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