On his way out of the parking lot at Canada’s Wonderland, Pietro Mariani, who is over 70, had his window rolled down, freshly vaccinated arm resting on his car’s window sill.
With mammoth rollercoasters looming in the background, some 400 people were expected to be vaccinated Monday with the opening of the Greater Toronto Area’s first drive-thru COVID-19 vaccine clinic at the amusement park in Vaughan. Mariani was one of them.
“The experience was wonderful,” he said. “Not only because I’m in Wonderland, but because it’s just wonderful.”
The clinic was prepared to handle 100 cars, each carrying up to four York Region residents, spokesperson Lucy Valleau said. Once fully operational, the site will ramp up to a total of 1,600 doses administered daily, pending vaccine supplies.
“We’re starting out slow just to make sure we work out all the kinks and to keep the flow moving,” Valleau said, adding 460 people were vaccinated at a test run on March 18. “We’re still working on timing.”
Drive-thru clinics offer several advantages, Valleau said, especially for people who have mobility issues.
“You don’t have to get out of your car, so it makes it very easy for them to get vaccinated,” she said. “You’re with staff for a very short time, with other clients for a very short time, so there’s reduced risk of transmission.”
For Rosalia and Joe Mazzotta, who both fall under the 70-plus age group, being able to receive their first doses of the vaccine from the comfort of their car provided much relief.
“I can’t stand too much because of my knees, so it was very, very good,” Rosalia said.
“Everybody was very polite and helpful,” Joe added.
Rutherford Road, which leads to the clinic’s entrance, is lined with signs informing drivers and passengers they can tune into radio station 92.7 to hear key messages about the clinic. These included notes that masks are mandatory at the drive-thru, and there’s no need for eligible residents to arrive early because everyone who has an appointment will be served.
On opening day, eligible residents began making their way through the clinic’s four segments at around 11 a.m. The first stop is a COVID-19 symptom screening, which people are encouraged to complete online ahead of time. Those who do not have an appointment are turned away, Valleau said.
Following the screening, cars roll up to one of six registration booths, formerly ticket stations for excited park-goers. There, residents are asked to present their identification cards and are logged into a digital provincial system.
After the checkpoints, cars are directed to join one of four lanes by a “line manager,” each leading to a bus carrying vaccines, other supplies and immunizers. People can then park their cars, roll down their window and receive either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine.
The buses — four in total, provided by York Region Transit — were retrofitted to serve as mobile immunization sites, Valleau said. Seats have been removed to make room for nurses, vaccine fridges and freezers. The buses have also been electronically updated so that buses don’t have to run all day but will continue to power fridges, heating systems and cooling systems.
“We can take them off site and go to other places, but they’re staying here at Wonderland for now,” she said.
Following the jab, people are instructed to park in a large area designated for the 15-minute observation period and honk if they need assistance. The whole process will take between 30 to 60 minutes, depending on how many people per car will be vaccinated, said spokesperson Candice Einstoss.
“If we get more efficient, we’re hoping to reduce that time down,” Einstoss said. While on opening day the clinic began accepting clients at 11 a.m., on regular days the first round of appointments will start at 9:30 a.m and end at 4:20 p.m.
A limited number of appointments became available last Friday for eligible groups, including: residents aged 70-plus; highest, very high and high-priority health care workers; Indigenous adults; adult recipients of chronic home care; and faith leaders who live or work in York Region. All appointments for the week of March 29 to April 4 are fully booked.
In addition to Canada’s Wonderland, York has two other drive-thrus planned. One is scheduled to open mid-April, at SoccerCity in Stouffville. The SoccerCity site may potentially open to residents from across Ontario, but will prioritize York residents first.
Einstoss said the team running the clinic at Canada’s Wonderland is supporting the team planning the drive-thru at SoccerCity. The SoccerCity clinic will not be using the YRT buses, instead using the building’s frame and tents to support operations, Einstoss said.
“We’re all kind of learning from each other, which is important,” she said. “If we can, we might look at doing some more drive-thrus if they prove to be efficient and safe, and weather permitting.”
While there is a potential for the Wonderland drive-thru to grow into a “bigger super-clinic,” increasing the maximum daily target will depend on staffing capacity, vaccine supplies and expanding clinic hours, Einstoss added.
“1,600 is where we’re at … but if we can expand the hours and get some more staff, it’s an option to go bigger.”