Island Health to start taking calls Monday for first group in mass-vaccination drive

Island Health officials are hustling this weekend, getting ready to vaccinate remaining high-risk groups next week and preparing to open phone lines Monday for seniors 90 and older to register for their COVID-19 shots.

“Excited, nervous,” said Richard Stanwick, chief medical health officer for Island Health, on the “unprecedented” scope of the immunization effort, which, he said, is bound to have a few hiccups. “I think we’re willing to perhaps make a few missteps to make sure that people get vaccinated earlier rather than later.”

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The health authority performed a major pivot this week, postponing ­second-dose clinics to give more ­people first doses, after provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced booster shots will be given after 16 weeks instead of six. First doses have been shown to be about 90 per cent effective.

That newly freed-up vaccine ­supply is being used next week to ­vaccinate the last of the high-risk seniors in independent living, those receiving home support and seniors awaiting placement in long-term care, as well as long-term care ­residents, visitors and staff who were missed in the first round.

Also being ­vaccinated are ­Indigenous ­communities, hospital staff, ­community ­doctors, medical specialists, ­vulnerable populations living and ­working in group settings, and staff in ­community home support and nursing services for seniors.

Joseph Nestor, 95, a resident in independent living at The Peninsula in Sidney, got his first dose Friday.

“I couldn’t sleep all night thinking about it,” said Nestor, who woke up at 3:30 a.m. for his appointment at 6:45 a.m. “I just lay there.”

Nestor said he feels now that he’s protected in case he comes in contact with someone who has COVID-19. “At my age if I get a disease there’s no cure for it,” he said. He called the feeling he had post-vaccine “beautiful.”

Noting about 3,700 people were vaccinated on Thursday, Stanwick said Island Health may get a four-week jump on its vaccination schedule because of the longer gap between shots. Vaccines will be administered at clinics as well as via mobile units that will go to the residences of house-bound seniors.

Stanwick is hoping the glee some are feeling about being protected ­earlier than anticipated offsets the disappointment of others who had second doses cancelled.

“The community will be safer because there’ll be less virus spread,” Stanwick said. “This is actually to the benefit of everyone.”

On Monday, Island Health will begin booking appointments for the first group of people in the general population eligible for vaccines: those 90 and older, and Indigenous people 65 and older.

Those born in or before 1936 can start calling March 15 for shots beginning March 22, while those born in or before 1941 can start calling March 22 to make appointments for vaccinations that will start March 29.

Those whose age window comes up are asked to call Island Health at 1-833-348-4787 to make an appointment. The health authority says it has 50 agents ready to start Monday, a number that will increase in coming weeks. The call centre will operate 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.

When you call you'll be asked for your first and last name, date of birth, postal code and Personal Health Number, formerly called your care card. You can find the number on the back of your B.C. driver's licence, BC Services Card or CareCard. If you do not have a Personal Health Number, you can still receive the vaccine.

You will also be asked for contact information such as an email address you check regularly or a phone number that can receive text messages. You will not be asked for your social insurance number, driver's licence number, or banking and credit card details.

The province has staggered the call-in dates in hopes that people will call only when it’s their turn, rather than risk crashing the call lines, as has happened in other jurisdictions. The lines will only hold a certain number of calls in the queue before asking people to call back. “We know some people may experience long wait times when they call to book an appointment,” the health authority said. “We are confident in our levels of vaccine supply … we are asking people to be patient when possible.”

No one loses their priority to book an appointment, regardless of when they call, said Dr. Penny Ballem, executive lead for B.C.s immunization plan.

The list of vaccination sites in Island Health is expected to be released next week.

On Friday, Health Canada announced it had approved use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The availability of a fourth vaccine —along with the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and AstaZeneca vaccines — will help accelerate protection of British Columbians, said a joint statement by Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix.

Island Health reported 26 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, out of 634 new cases province-wide.

The number of new cases remains higher than “where we want it to be,” said Henry and Dix , who called for British Columbians to continue to follow public health orders and restrictions.

The reproduction rate of the virus — how many people an infected person will pass the virus on to — is now about 1.2 in the Island Health region. Henry has said the province wants to keep the number below one.

There are now 256 active cases in the Island Health region, 139 of which are in the central region, 62 in the north and 55 in the south.

Another four COVID-19 deaths were reported Friday, for a total of 1,380 to date in B.C.

The province has administered 311,208 doses of vaccine, of which 86,865 were second doses.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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