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Health Minister Adrian Dix talks with journalists during a press conference at the Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on May 6, 2020.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

Middle-aged British Columbians went on a frustrating hunt for a small number of vaccine doses that were suddenly on offer Wednesday, but most faced confusion, jammed phone lines and harried pharmacists, and failed to get an appointment.

The provincial government announced late on Tuesday afternoon that people aged 55 to 65 would be eligible to get an Oxford-AstraZeneca shot through a pharmacy. It came as a surprise because people that age weren’t due to qualify for weeks, and pharmacies had not been used yet in B.C.’s vaccination campaign.

The rollout was bumpy.

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Scott Bernstein, 55, said his usual pharmacist didn’t have any. So he called the Save-on-Foods pharmacy at Kingsway and Knight Street and was told it was giving priority to its own customers.

“The fact that you know that the province selected certain pharmacies to do this, and it was the big chain ones, I think that’s just really unethical and very, very unfair for people like me. I’m just trying to get the vaccine,” he said.

Lorimer Shenher said he was excited at the early chance to get a shot, but was unable to book an appointment after travelling to two locations. At a Shoppers Drug Mart he was told the 30 expected doses would be reserved for customers of the pharmacy.

“It seemed like a window of opportunity, but it has been a bit discouraging,” he said. “It is pointless to drive around to a bunch of Shoppers pharmacies.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix said on Wednesday there were challenges given the high demand for vaccinations and the scarcity of supply. He noted only 13,500 doses of AstraZeneca are immediately available and in the hands of pharmacists, with a further 43,000 expected on Friday.

The doses became available after the National Advisory Council on Immunization recommended provinces pause giving the AstraZeneca vaccine to people under the age of 55 so more work can be done to investigate cases of rare and unusual blood clotting.

That suddenly freed up doses that had been intended for front-line workers who are under 55 years of age.

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Annette Robinson, president of British Columbia Pharmacy Association, said the drug stores selected to deliver the vaccine were those in the Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health regions that were able to conduct flu vaccinations.

“It made sense to work with the pharmacies,” Mr. Dix said.

When asked if pharmacies can give priority to their own customers, he responded: “I don’t believe that’s what’s happening. This is a relatively small amount of vaccine that we needed to move out right away.”

He added that he thought the program was going well.

In a statement, Save-On Foods did not address whether it was offering the vaccine to its own customers first.

“As you can imagine, the demand for COVID-19 vaccines for Lower Mainland residents aged 55-65 far exceeds the supply available to our pharmacies.” It said it will notify customers on its website as additional doses become available.

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London Drugs came under heavy criticism for tweeting early Wednesday that its appointments were already booked.

In a statement on Twitter, the pharmacy chain apologized, saying stores were inundated with requests for vaccinations on Tuesday as soon as the government announced bookings could begin.

“There was no requirement we were aware of in our information by government to wait to take appointments, only that vaccines would be made available to us the morning of March 31,” the company said in a series of tweets.

Ms. Robinson of the pharmacy association said the overwhelming response shows a lot of people want to get vaccinated.

“There is an overwhelming demand. We anticipate that there will be further supply available to community pharmacies,” she said.

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