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A nurse prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccination in Edmonton on Dec. 15, 2020.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Many Albertans hoping to book COVID-19 vaccination appointments for older loved ones Wednesday instead spent hours being kicked off the government’s booking website or getting busy signals on the phone.

Some 230,000 people born in 1946 or earlier are now eligible to be immunized at 58 sites across the province. Appointments are being offered through an online portal and the 811 Health Link phone line.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said the website was temporarily overwhelmed when more than 150,000 people tried to get access to it. By mid-afternoon, 25,000 appointments had been booked.

He said he understands “nerves are worn raw.”

“Vaccines are our ticket out of the pandemic,” he said. “So any delay in booking an appointment is yet another difficulty and another frustration for folks. I’m disappointed.”

Which COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’ are in Canada? Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Lambda explained

COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.

Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.

ALPHA (B.1.1.7)

  • Country of origin: Britain
  • Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
  • Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.

BETA (B.1.351)

  • Country of origin: South Africa
  • Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
  • Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.

GAMMA (P.1)

  • Country of origin: Brazil
  • Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
  • Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.

DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)

  • Country of origin: India
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
  • Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.

LAMBDA (C.37)

  • Country of origin: Peru
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
  • Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.

If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?

Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.

Need more answers? Email audience@globeandmail.com

Shandro said Alberta Health Services has added network capacity and staff. He said all eligible seniors should have their first shots by the end of March.

Kim Fandrick, who lives with her parents in a rural area south of Edmonton, said she logged on at 8 a.m. and within a minute the website had crashed. She tried calling 811 and got beeps.

She went back online, filled out the forms, but was booted off before she could submit them.

About 90 minutes later, she managed to book her mother in for Thursday. The 81-year-old has a chronic lung condition and has only been out of the house 10 times since last March.

Fandrick had to go through it all again for her 86-year-old father, who is also at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19. But after another 90 minutes, she had no success.

“It’s just disappointing that I couldn’t book both of them at the same time,” said Fandrick, who added that she will have to drive 35 minutes each way – four times – to get her parents both of their doses in Edmonton.

“There has got to be a better way,” she said. “You can go buy 50/50 (online tickets) from the (Edmonton) Oilers game. Maybe they should have talked to them.”

Police services in Edmonton and Calgary had to urge people not to call 911 about vaccinations.

Coding workarounds to stop website glitches were posted on the Twitter accounts of scientists Kyle and Kory Mathewson, which brought many frustrated Albertans success.

Lynn Burrough and her brother started trying to book an appointment for their 86-year-old mother first thing in the morning.

After eight hours, Burrough finally clinched one thanks to the Mathewsons’ strategy.

“On the online portal, it was just a constant stream of error messages: ‘This site can’t be reached. This site took too long to respond. Temporarily unavailable,”’ she said from St. Albert, Alta.

“The site’s just obviously not set up to handle the volume of traffic it’s receiving.”

Burrough said her mother is “extremely fragile” and lives in an independent living facility with the help of home care and family. She said a solution could have been for vaccines to be offered in such residences.

She also suggested the vaccine could be offered to smaller age cohorts at a time, instead of having such a big group clamouring for appointments at once.

“I think Alberta bit off more than they could chew,” she said. “It’s obviously not working.”

Vaccines are also being made available at 102 pharmacies in Edmonton, Red Deer and Calgary starting the week of March 8 or earlier, depending on supply, said Alberta Pharmacists’ Association CEO Margaret Wing. She said they will be limited to 200 doses per week, based on current supply projections.

The large number of COVID-19 infections in some places makes it more likely for new variants of the virus to emerge. Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk explains how vaccines may not be as effective against these new strains, making it a race to control and track the spread of variants before they become a dangerous new outbreak.

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