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Seniors sit in a waiting room after receiving their COVID-19 vaccine in a clinic as Quebec begins vaccinations for seniors over 85 years old in Laval, Que. on Feb. 25, 2021.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters

Fewer than half of the provinces and territories have online booking systems up and running so members of the public can make their appointments for the largest vaccination campaign in Canadian history. Some of those that have launched their systems have faced crashes and bugs.

Quebec, the Northwest Territories, Prince Edward Island, Yukon and Alberta have their systems in operation. Nova Scotia, Ontario, and British Columbia say theirs will launch in March, and Saskatchewan is aiming for April. Details remain scant in Manitoba and New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador expects to unveil its plans on Friday.

At the federal government’s vaccine briefing Thursday, Major-General Dany Fortin said the supply of COVID-19 vaccines is “pretty solid now” and that the provinces will need to prepare for the more than one million doses a week the manufacturers are to send as of April.

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Maj-Gen. Fortin said “provinces are at different levels of readiness in their plans.” He said the best way Ottawa can help the provinces and territories is by giving them predictability in the vaccine supply and as much lead time as possible for shipments.

Quebec’s Clic Santé is already widely used to make appointments for blood tests, but it crashed Thursday morning when it opened to book COVID-19 vaccination spots for all Quebeckers over the age of 85. (Since it came back online, Quebeckers have reported that it has been working seamlessly.)

Alberta’s newly created appointment-booking tool went live on the provincial government website earlier this week, but many users reported getting an error message that told them to try again later. Tech-savvy Albertans shared lines of Javascript code on social media that users could copy and paste into their browser to get around that problem.

Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Wednesday that he was disappointed about the problems. “We did have the expectation this rollout would be smooth.”

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott said Thursday that the province is working to iron out any problems with its system, which is designed to integrate with the rest of its IT infrastructure, and will do a test run in some areas on March 1.

Tinglong Dai, associate professor of operations management and business analytics at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, said having people log on and book a time for their shot is backwards.

“You shouldn’t open the flood gates,” he said. Systems crash because they offer a scarce resource to a large number of people, he said.

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”Let’s say you have 100 doses, and 10,000 people who want it,” he said. As people try to reserve one of a limited number of spots, they will keep refreshing the page until they get one, until no doses are left, or the page crashes. “There has to be a better management of supply and demand.”

A first-come-first-served vaccine appointment system, like snagging concert tickets or day-trading, benefits those who have high-speed internet and the most up-to-date technology, Prof. Dai said.

Jurisdictions such as Britain and Israel have had success by building a list of every person who wants a vaccine, and contacting those who are eligible when their time comes, he said. Prof. Dai added that this reduces the burden on the IT infrastructure and makes for a more equitable delivery.

Instead of waiting for Ontario’s system to be ready, the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph health authority has begun doing exactly that: registering those eligible so they can contact them to make their appointment when the supply is available.

Even those portals that are live aren’t necessarily easy to find, considering that many Canadians will use search engines to look for information on how to book an appointment. Quebec’s page on the COVID-19 vaccine, for example, doesn’t link to the Clic Santé website – and it is difficult to find without knowing the exact name. Yukon’s appointment booking platform, by contrast, is easy to find and to use.

Public-health officials say accessibility, especially for underserved populations, is crucial. Yet not all of the vaccination pages are bilingual so far: The Yukon and Quebec portals are in English and French, while French is available on the Northwest Territories’ system through a Google Translate button. PEI’s system is in English only.

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Nunavut may not have an online portal, but the territory provides complete information in four languages: English, French, Inuinnaqtun and Inuktitut. The territorial government has said it hopes to have three-quarters of residents vaccinated by the end of March.

With a report from Marieke Walsh.

Editor’s note: (Feb. 26, 2021): An earlier version of this article included incorrect information for the territories. This version has been updated.

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