Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine booking system is ready to start taking appointments both by phone and online, the province’s premier announced Sunday amid warnings to limit its use only to those who currently qualify to be immunized. 

Doug Ford said early tests of the provincial vaccine portal have been “seamless” in the run up to Monday morning’s formal launch. 

But he said it’s crucial that only eligible residents make use of the system. For now, that group consists solely of those 80 and older, he added.

“This could not be more important,” Ford said at a rare Sunday morning news conference. “… If you are not 80 or older, or helping somebody who is, please do not try to book an appointment. We need to take care of our elderly first.”

While many of Ontario’s 34 public health units have already established their own systems for booking vaccination appointments, the provincial portal will now either enhance or fully replace those setups in many areas. 

In addition to allowing vaccine-seekers to book their shots, the portal will also provide instructions on how to schedule appointments based on protocols in place in each specific health unit.

The government website and an accompanying phone line are both set to go live on Monday at 8 a.m.

The province said people who are eligible to get vaccinated can book online at www.ontario.ca/bookvaccine, while those wishing to schedule by phone can call 1-888-999-6488.

First and second vaccination appointments will be arranged at the same time, the government said, noting people will be asked to provide their provincial health card details, birth date, postal code and email address or phone number.

Ford said the booking system will be open to other age groups in April as part of the next phase of Ontario’s vaccine rollout.

Retired Gen. Rick Hillier, the head of Ontario’s vaccine distribution task force, said more than 2,200 operators will be registering patients on Monday, with a capacity to take approximately 10,000 calls per hour.

More than 800,000 appointments will be available through the online portal, he added.

Hillier said it seems like all systems are go ahead of Monday’s launch, but the province is prepared for all possibilities.

“We are confident in the system itself. But we all know that in many places, there are some hiccups,” said Hillier.

“Sometimes the systems go down for a while. And if it does go down for a while, we’ll fix it and get it back up.” 

The launch of the provincial portal marks the latest step in Ontario’s mass immunization drive, which introduced new elements targeting some 60- to 64-year-olds in recent days. 

A pilot project allowing pharmacies to administer shots launched last week in the Toronto, Windsor-Essex and Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox & Addington health units.

Family doctors in six other public health units — Toronto, Peel, Hamilton, Guelph, Peterborough and Simcoe-Muskoka — also began delivering vaccines to eligible patients in the same age bracket as of Saturday. 

Both pilot projects will see eligible residents receive shots of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Ontario has the resources to administer 4.8 million vaccines per month, said Ford, but the rollout is running at about a quarter of that capacity because of limited supply.

“I know the federal government’s trying. They’re doing their best,” he said. “All I’m pointing out is we just don’t have enough vaccines. Simple as that.”

Meanwhile, Ontario reported 1,747 new COVID-19 infections on Sunday, but Health Minister Christine Elliott said that number could be inflated by “several hundred” cases because of a data error.

Elliott told reporters she couldn’t pinpoint exactly how many cases were related to a change in the way the provincial tracking system classifies cases.

The province said the virus has been linked to 15 additional deaths. Authorities say 601 people are being treated in hospital for COVID-19, including 282 patients in intensive-care units.

Elliott said more than 47,600 tests were completed since the last update.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 14, 2021.

Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press

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