For the first time since the pandemic began, Marlene Guyda found herself surrounded by hundreds of strangers, all of them waiting anxiously in line for more than an hour Monday at the RBC Convention Centre, for a shot at the COVID-19 vaccine.
Guyda, 76, and her husband Brian both had their appointments booked for 6:30 p.m. that evening but got their shots more than 60 minutes later after waiting in a line that stretched throughout the expansive third floor of the mass vaccination clinic.
"I felt like this is a real good spreader place," Guyda said in a phone interview Tuesday. "There were people on both sides of you, though everyone tried to keep their distance, and it was boiling-hot in there yesterday. There’s got to be another way to do this."
Over the past week, the COVID-19 vaccination clinic in downtown Winnipeg has fallen behind schedule in its effort to immunize people as patient volumes have steadily increased.
Last Tuesday, the province introduced a new vaccine delivery model on the third floor of the clinic meant to streamline the process and reduce the time each person spends on site.
However, the first day of the pilot resulted in significant lineups and wait times as clinic staff adjusted to the new workflow. That same week issues with the province’s COVID-19 appointment-booking software led to delays registering patients.
Then Friday, the province said a problem with the software used to schedule staff left the clinic shorthanded as thousands of people queued in lines for hours to get their vaccine.
Staffing issues persisted over the weekend but by Monday the province said the average wait time at the Winnipeg clinic had stabilized at 20 minutes.
However, by late Tuesday afternoon clients were once again forced to wait in long line ups — for an average of 45 minutes — due to issues with staff scheduling, the province said.
However, Guyda said she spent a total of 105 minutes at the clinic, most of which was spent walking in a line with hundreds of other people to the immunization area, where she and her husband were finally able to sit down.
"We were walking the whole time, up and down, this way and that way like cattle being herded," she said, adding that her husband has health conditions that make extended periods of walking difficult.
"The line just kept going. It went down one side of the hall and then around, around, and around again."
On arrival, Guyda said the couple was mistakenly directed to the third floor, instead of the more accessible first-floor clinic, because they did not have mobility devices with them.
After an hour in line, they were finally greeted by a staff member at the registration table who inquired about mobility and health conditions who told them they should have been sent to the main floor.
"We’re relieved that we got the shot and we’re hopeful we didn’t get exposed to anything," Guyda said. "I’ve had my shot, now I think of other people and they shouldn’t have to go through this."
On Tuesday, a provincial spokesman said the average wait time at the clinic was 20 minutes.
A request for an interview with a member of the vaccine task force was not accommodated.
"We apologize for the inconvenience people have experienced at the Winnipeg supersite," the spokesman said in a written statement to the Free Press. "We have identified a number of issues which contributed to longer-than acceptable waits and have made real-time adjustments to ensure our clients have a more positive experience as we move through this pilot stage."
The province said people should not arrive more than 15 minutes prior to their appointment and wheelchairs are available on request at the convention centre.
Opposition Leader Wab Kinew said logistical, staffing and communication issues surrounding the Winnipeg clinic need to be addressed immediately, adding that enhanced access to seating and water must be offered as long as waits continue.
"My heart really goes out to folks, we’re talking about seniors who have not been able to go out much over the past year, and now one of their first forays into public is filled with stress and risk," the NDP leader said.
"It doesn’t appear that they’re doing a good job of telling people what to expect before they get to the supersite and when they get there, and so I think communication, if nothing else, gives people a realistic expectation of what they’re about to see.
"The government does have the ability to rectify these things and the fact that they haven’t after a number of days is definitely disappointing."
Health and Seniors Care Minister Heather Stefanson was unavailable for an interview Tuesday. In a statement to the Free Press, the minister apologized to people who experienced and were inconvenienced by delays at the clinic, adding that all appointments have been kept.
"The Vaccine Implementation Task Force continues to evaluate and make adjustments to improve the flow at all supersites, in order to improve the experience for Manitobans," Stefanson said.
"I want to extend our sincere thanks to those who are working and volunteering at our vaccination sites, and those who are choosing to be vaccinated every day. You are saving lives, and Manitobans are grateful."
Danielle Da Silva
Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.