As Ontario’s lockdown measures come under increased scrutiny, so, too, does its vaccine rollout. On April 7, Premier Doug Ford announced that vaccines would be provided to eligible residents of COVID-19 hot spots across the province. Since then, though, Ontarians have expressed frustration with arcane web-registration forms, conflicting online information, and daily appointment openings that are being snapped up in as little as 30 seconds. Established clinics at locations such as St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto have been forced to temporarily shut down due to a spike in demand.
Increasingly, Ontarians are turning, not to government resources, but to social media to get clear and up-to-date information. The Twitter account Vaccine Hunters Canada, which was created in March, saw its follower count surge this week from less than 10,000 to close to 50,000 followers (and counting). A community-run account, it’s dedicated solely to posting updates on when, where, and how vaccines are available across the province. It estimates that it’s already helped thousands of people get their jab.
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TVO.org speaks with Sabrina Craig, who works in finance and is one of the four Torontonians behind the account about why it was created, how it works, and what goes on behind the scenes.
TVO.org: So how did this start? Was it conceived of as a response to inadequate government communications?
Sabrina Craig: It came into existence because there was a need: Andrew, who’s a
software developer in Toronto (who has asked that his last name not be used), started it in March, then two other team members joined after. I was onboarded a week ago. We do have more activity in Ontario versus, say, British Columbia. So it's been joked about that, oh, if this or that [government response] wasn't a problem, then we wouldn't be here. But, all in all, we’re just here to support public health. It doesn't do anyone any good to get political with it. The goal is twofold: to connect people who are eligible to vaccines, and to minimize vaccine wastage.
TVO.org: How did you get involved?
Craig: I’ve never met Andrew, or any of the other team members, which include Josh Kalpin, a software engineer, and Jonathan Clodman, an elementary-school teacher. Because we all have such different backgrounds, there are different perspectives on the vaccine rollout. I had just been very persistent in DMing tips to the account on Twitter, and my involvement ballooned from there.
TVO.org: You post dozens of links to vaccine availability per day. How does it work, exactly?
Craig: It’s 100 per cent manual. We all keep an eye on the news — we have alerts set up. Aside from paying attention to our Twitter messages, we have a very active Discord, which is a server where we communicate most things. There, we have a lot of connections with vaccine administrators and doctors. And what we found out is that, in hospital settings, end-of-day access is given to staff. So we’re focusing on non-hospital settings.
TVO.org: What’s the conversation like on the Discord server — are you hearing about any barriers to vaccine access, aside from the booking systems themselves?
Craig: Yes. For example, earlier today, there was someone who had their vaccine booked, but their health card expires between now and then. So we’re lucky to have vaccine administrators on the chat who could tell them what they needed to know, which was to bring their passport and any other form of ID and mail with their name and address on it.
But I should say that we’re dealing with a population that’s very technologically literate. These are folks on Discord. These are folks who can press the F5 button to refresh the page for [Centre for Addiction and Mental Health] vaccines and then get on to the booking list. And even for more technologically literate people, it’s difficult to wrap our heads around the how and where to book.
TVO.org: How much time would you say this side hustle takes out of your day?
Craig: A few hours. But I want to be very clear about something: it’s not a hustle. We’re not making money.
TVO.org: Is there any desire to scale up?
Craig: We're working on a little bit of automation. Rexall reached out to us today in regard to one of our tweets, which was really cool — it would be great to work with some of these larger companies, because of the amount of data they have. But it might be too early to say. I think this group is interested in keeping our options open.
TVO.org: You’re based in Toronto. What’s your perspective on Ontario’s vaccine rollout?
Craig: Expecting a one-size-fits-all policy is unrealistic. There will always be people left behind who might be in rural communities or older or not able to book for themselves for whatever reason. If they are able to find knowledge or timing that works for them through us, that’s what I would consider a success.
TVO.org: The VaxHuntersCanada Twitter account blew up after actress Jean Yoon, of Kim’s Convenience, tweeted that she’d been able to get her shot by using information you’d provided. Do you have any other notable followers?
Craig: Isaac Bogoch, the infectious-disease specialist, follows us.
TVO.org: Is that a vote of confidence?
Craig: Maybe. I just hope we do right by him!
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.