Another challenge for vaccination clinics: basic math

OPINION: I waited hours this weekend for a shot — and was turned away. Inventory control and simple addition shouldn’t be this hard
By Matt Gurney - Published on Jun 14, 2021
People line up for the COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto on May 11. (Frank Gunn/CP)

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On Sunday afternoon, a little bit after 4 o’clock, I went to the Thorncliffe Park mass-vaccination site, run by Michael Garron Hospital, at the East York Town Centre on Overlea Boulevard. There I joined thousands of other people in line for a dose of vaccine. I had seen a notice online saying that they were taking all comers and, as I live nearby, thought I would try my luck. My licence was checked shortly after I arrived, and I was given a yellow ticket, which I was told meant I was good — each ticket was good for a dose, and the number of tickets was aligned with the available doses. So I got in the line. I spent the next three and a half hours in that line. It was mostly very hot in that parking lot. But we did get rained on four times. So that was nice.

I finally got to the front. As I waited to be let inside, several police officers and a group of security came over to us. Uh oh, I thought. Sure enough, they explained that they had to cut the line short due to a shortage of doses inside — what we had been told would not happen! This included those who had yellow tickets. A count was taken, and hundreds were sent away — not all of them quietly. I made the cut. So did a few dozen others. The remaining few hundred, who’d been waiting there with me in the sun and/or rain, were handed pink tickets, which promised them priority access the next day.

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Gosh, I thought. Glad that didn’t happen to me! It would suck to spend more than three hours in alternating blinding sun and bursts of rain only to be turned back!

And then a funny thing happened!

My group was led inside. Our health cards were taken, our information recorded. We were sent into a different line. We stood there for a while, and then we moved to a different line. Two very nervous-looking staff began counting us over and over. Uh oh, I thought again. And sure enough, a man with an extremely carefully controlled expression told us — the last 40 people to get in after hours on the tarmac of the parking lot — that there were only 10 remaining doses. Thirty of us would have to settle for pink tickets and an apology. I was number 22 of the unlucky 30.

I accepted the pink ticket. With any luck, by the time you read this, I will have redeemed it at a nearby hospital for one dose of Pfizer vaccine. I politely declined to accept the apology. (And, yes, I was polite, as this young man was obviously not responsible for the extremely annoying situation.) I told him to stop apologizing but just tell me what had gone wrong. How do you have people wait for hours in summer heat only to let them inside, register them, and then, only then, turn them away? He sighed, shuffled his feet a bit, and told me they’d miscounted. They had handed out 30 tickets too many. Or maybe it was a glitch in the system, and there were 30 fewer doses than expected. He wasn’t sure.

So I took my pink ticket and left. I was, as you can imagine, somewhat irritated, as I assume everyone in my group of 30 rejects was. But everyone more or less took it well and went home, with the exception of one gentleman who serenaded us all with an unimaginative barrage of profanity, which made up for its uninspired content by being delivered with impressive volume and verve.

Honestly, folks, I had to laugh. Anger can be a useful emotion. But not in situations like this. All I could do was chew out some person designated to be the messenger and doing their best to help people who’d drawn the short straw. Whatever temporary benefit I would’ve gotten from venting would have been eventually erased by the guilt I’d feel knowing I’d blown my stack on a good person who was doing their best and who couldn’t have done any better, anyway.

But, yikes. When this pandemic is over, I think all of us know we are going to need to very carefully review what worked well and what did not work well. There is a lot of stuff that did not work well. Complicated, important, expensive, big-picture stuff. We’ll need to fix all those things.

But a few hundred Torontonians and I didn’t get screwed over on the weekend because of a big complex failure. This is basic numeracy. Don’t give out more tickets than you can honour. Make sure the inventory-control system is accurate. Include a margin in every supply to account for spoilage and for what I suspect could also have been an issue: one person with a yellow ticket bringing in some friends and family with them, hoping, successfully, that once inside, the medical staff would look the other way and jab the willing arm.

Here’s the thing. I’m not the problem here. I can miss a day of work. I have a private vehicle to go where I’m sent. My wife can look after the kids at home. And I can continue to largely isolate until fully vaccinated, as my work situation permits that. Wasting my time is annoying to me personally, but it ain’t a rounding error on the suffering of this pandemic.

But hundreds of people waited hours on a weekend only to get turned away on Sunday. Some of them no doubt have to work today. Some of them are no doubt going to miss a paycheque trying to redeem their pink ticket. Some of them are going to be scrambling to find child care. I have it easy, but I’m not a representative example of the people turned away on Sunday. I’m just the guy with the column.

Here’s the bottom line: I will get my second shot sooner or later. As for right now, I’m going to crack a beer — I’m writing this the evening before you read it, folks, don’t worry — and laugh this off. But there are people who got turned away after a long wait yesterday who may not bother trying again, who may get sick before they can redeem their pink cards. This is a minor thing for me but potentially life-changing for someone else. 

We need to add this to the list of things to worry about. As I noted in a recent column elsewhere, the basic responsibility of any public-safety organization is being competent, at the outset of any crisis, at all the basic, easy, foreseeable stuff. That buys the senior leadership time to come up with solutions to the hard, complicated, unexpected stuff. Inventory control and basic numeracy ought to be filed in the easy column. Alas, one of Toronto’s major hospitals came up a bit short on those fronts on Sunday evening.

Oh, well. Wish me luck. Let’s see what this pink ticket can do. 

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