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British Columbia is blaming Telus after call centres for COVID-19 vaccine appointments were overwhelmed, while the province also faces criticism over the lack of an online booking platform.

Premier John Horgan said Tuesday that the government takes “full responsibility” for the system being overloaded but the contractor has acknowledged it failed to meet expectations.

Horgan said he’s “profoundly disappointed” that one health authority did not have a backup call centre and relied solely on the one provided by Telus, resulting in jammed phone lines.

“We had a bad day yesterday,” Horgan said. “We being all British Columbians that live in Vancouver Coastal Health. We’re taking steps today to correct that.”

Horgan said the province was not prepared for 1.7 million calls within the first three hours of the system opening for people aged 90 and up as well as First Nations residents over 65.

Health Minister Adrian Dix has said about 80,000 people are in those categories, but about 26,000 of those have already received a shot in a care home or another setting.

Moderna, Pfizer, AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson: Which COVID-19 vaccine will I get in Canada?

Canada pre-purchased millions of doses of seven different vaccine types, and Health Canada has approved four so far for the various provincial and territorial rollouts. All the drugs are fully effective in preventing serious illness and death, though some may do more than others to stop any symptomatic illness at all (which is where the efficacy rates cited below come in).

PFIZER-BIONTECH

  • Also known as: Comirnaty
  • Approved on: Dec. 9, 2020
  • Efficacy rate: 95 per cent with both doses in patients 16 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 15-year-olds
  • Traits: Must be stored at -70 C, requiring specialized ultracold freezers. It is a new type of mRNA-based vaccine that gives the body a sample of the virus’s DNA to teach immune systems how to fight it. Health Canada has authorized it for use in people as young as 12.

MODERNA

  • Also known as: SpikeVax
  • Approved on: Dec. 23, 2020
  • Efficacy rate: 94 per cent with both doses in patients 18 and older, and 100 per cent in 12- to 17-year-olds
  • Traits: Like Pfizer’s vaccine, this one is mRNA-based, but it can be stored at -20 C. It’s approved for use in Canada for ages 12 and up.

OXFORD-ASTRAZENECA

  • Also known as: Vaxzevria
  • Approved on: Feb. 26, 2021
  • Efficacy rate: 62 per cent two weeks after the second dose
  • Traits: This comes in two versions approved for Canadian use, the kind made in Europe and the same drug made by a different process in India (where it is called Covishield). The National Advisory Committee on Immunization’s latest guidance is that its okay for people 30 and older to get it if they can’t or don’t want to wait for an mRNA vaccine, but to guard against the risk of a rare blood-clotting disorder, all provinces have stopped giving first doses of AstraZeneca.

JOHNSON & JOHNSON

  • Also known as: Janssen
  • Approved on: March 5, 2021
  • Efficacy rate: 66 per cent two weeks after the single dose
  • Traits: Unlike the other vaccines, this one comes in a single injection. NACI says it should be offered to Canadians 30 and older, but Health Canada paused distribution of the drug for now as it investigates inspection concerns at a Maryland facility where the active ingredient was made.

How many vaccine doses do I get?

All vaccines except Johnson & Johnson’s require two doses, though even for double-dose drugs, research suggests the first shots may give fairly strong protection. This has led health agencies to focus on getting first shots to as many people as possible, then delaying boosters by up to four months. To see how many doses your province or territory has administered so far, check our vaccine tracker for the latest numbers.

Just under 15,000 appointments were booked Monday, as many frustrated residents reported getting a busy signal or a recorded message telling them to call back later.

Fraser Health was the only authority with an online option for booking appointments and 8,722 were made there, while the Interior and Vancouver Island health authorities each recorded just under 2,500 bookings and residents in the north made just over 1,000.

Only 369 bookings were made in Vancouver Coastal, and Dix said that’s because it was the only authority without a backup call centre to support the one provided by Telus.

However, he said Telus should be held accountable for the failure in that region.

“Vancouver Coastal Health ... is in the business of providing health care,” Dix said.

“They contracted with a provider who is in the call centre business. That provider let them, but more importantly let people over 90 and over 65, down yesterday.”

Dix said the company repeatedly assured the province, even as late as 9 p.m. Sunday night, the call centres were adequately staffed. However, he said he believes the number of people committed to the centres by Telus “simply were not there” on Monday.

The staffing issues were compounded by technical problems, he said.

“To say that I’m disappointed or frustrated is an understatement,” Dix said. “People should be mad that the service provider didn’t come through here.”

More people were trained overnight and on Tuesday to answer calls, including about 100 people in the Vancouver Coastal Health region, he said.

Those who call this week are scheduling appointments for next week. Every week, a new age group is set to become eligible, so the demand on the system is expected to increase.

Dix said if Telus is “unable to deliver,” then B.C. is actively looking at alternatives.

Telus president Darren Entwistle said in a statement he is “incredibly sorry” for the frustrations that residents have experienced and the company can and will do better.

“Our team has been working around the clock to scale capacity and respond to the unprecedented demand,” he said.

Entwistle says Telus promised to have 156 agents answering calls at all times to schedule vaccinations across the province. By Tuesday afternoon, it will have more than 250 agents taking calls.

“We will ensure that all eligible British Columbians can book their vaccine in the time frame set out by the province.”

However, many residents trying to book appointments have questioned why Fraser Health was the only authority with an active online booking platform.

Dix has said that call centres are the focus of booking at this time because of the advanced age of those eligible, but a provincewide web-based system will be ready on April 12.

The minister did not directly answer questions on Tuesday about why the province did not begin work on an online platform months earlier to have it ready for this week.

“There will be a provincewide system in place. We want to make sure it’s ready and it works,” he said. “What we need to do this week is get everyone the appointments they need for next week.”

Another 550 cases of COVID-19 were reported in the province on Tuesday with two more deaths.

“Today marks a sombre milestone: one year since the first person in British Columbia died as a result of COVID-19,” said a joint statement from Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

Another 182 cases have been confirmed as variants of concern for a total of 576 cases, most of them are linked to the strain first found in the United Kingdom, the statement said.

With files from Camille Bains

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