Winnipeg medical specialist says staff didn’t know rules when he called to book COVID-19 vaccine

A microbiologist from St. Boniface Hospital was frustrated by the inefficient and ill-informed treatment he says he received when trying to book an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens works in a lab that tests for COVID-19 and he is in contact with patients who have the virus. The Manitoba government expanded its immunization eligibility criteria Tuesday to include health-care workers who come in contact with patients and handle COVID-19 specimens in a laboratory, making Lagacé-Wiens eligible to receive his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

But when he called to book his time, the microbiologist was told he did not qualify because the person on the other end of the line did not have the updated screening tool.

“I pleaded with her to look at the website, I pleaded with her for a supervisor to talk to about this,” Lagacé-Wiens said. “She informed me that her supervisor was the government of Manitoba.”

With the exception of First Nations and personal care homes in Manitoba, which will be receiving doses of the Moderna vaccine in the coming days and weeks, only certain health-care workers are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Currently, health-care workers who come in direct contact with patients and work in critical care units, COVID-19 immunization or testing sites, labs handling COVID-19 specimens, a designated COVID-19 hospital ward, or a correctional facility are eligible for the vaccine.

Aside from First Nations and personal care homes in Manitoba which will be receiving doses of the Moderna vaccine, only certain health-care workers are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

For those workers there is no age restriction. But only acute and long-term care facility workers who were born by Dec. 31, 1975, are eligible.

When Lagacé-Wiens called Tuesday, he was on hold for 90 minutes before the operator denied him for not being born before 1976.

Lagacé-Wiens tried explaining that there had been a change. The woman said she could schedule him in, but she would have to mark Lagacé-Wiens as ineligible and he could be issued a fine when he arrived for his appointment, he said.

“I was very tempted to say, ‘Yes, schedule me,’ because I knew in my heart that I was eligible. But I didn’t want to create any trouble. So in the end, we had to part ways.”

Most Manitobans understand that only certain portions of the population are currently eligible for the vaccine and are following that criteria, a provincial government spokesperson said via email.

“While we have heard reports that there may have been a very small number of people who have tried to get around this process, there is nothing that indicates this is a significant problem and we do not have any stats to provide,” the spokesperson said.

A Manitoba government spokesperson says there have been reports of queue jumping for the vaccine, but not enough for it to be a problem. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

“We investigate all complaints and have put a process in place that will audit compliance with eligibility criteria.”

Determined, Lagacé-Wiens again called to book his appointment at 6 a.m. Wednesday morning and was on hold for 45 minutes until someone picked up. The other person on the line had the updated screening tool, but they almost excluded him again, Lagacé-Wiens said.

“They didn’t ask the next set of questions — the new ones,” he said, adding that Wednesday’s call went generally better.

Lagacé-Wiens appreciates being able to get the vaccine so early, but he believes the process could be more efficient. 

“There has been no clarity, or very limited clarity, about who’s eligible,” he said. “What is the definition of patient contact or patient care?

“Ask me whether or not housekeeping staff on a COVID ward is at risk of transmitting and acquiring COVID. I’ll tell you, absolutely. They should be a priority. But because they are not deemed patient care, they’re not eligible.”

Lagacé-Wiens has colleagues who are eligible for an immunization appointment but have given up because they were on hold for hours, he said.

The trend doesn’t bode well for the immunization program as it begins opening up to more of the public, he said.