Families, staff in Quebec's private seniors' residences fret as COVID-19 vaccines are delayed

Quebec's health ministry confirms the next phase of the province's vaccination campaign has been delayed because of reduced Pfizer shipments.

Health Ministry says reduced Pfizer shipments caused change in schedule

Jean Snow, 99, worked with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, caught COVID-19 recently and now her daughter wonders if the vaccine could have prevented that. (Submitted by Katherine Snow)

The next phase of the province's COVID-19 vaccination campaign, scheduled to begin Monday morning, has been delayed two weeks because of reduced vaccine shipments, Quebec's health ministry has confirmed. 

Following vaccination campaigns for long-term care homes (CHSLDs), health-care workers and some isolated communities, the province had planned to ramp up the vaccinations in private seniors' residences (RPAs) next. 

"Considering the significant reduction in Pfizer vaccine doses shipped over the next two weeks, we need to review our vaccine schedule, notably for the RPAs," the health ministry said in a statement Sunday. 

On Monday evening, a spokesperson for the department said the campaign will now begin on Feb. 8.

For Lianne Muloin, general manager of the Château Royal retirement home in Dollard-des-Ormeaux, the arrival of the vaccine presented a glimmer of hope.

"We never gave up that vigilance but there was that little light at the end of the tunnel," she said. 

The news that vaccination is delayed has hit Château Royal and other homes like it hard. 

'It's devastating, it's difficult to understand'

Though the residence was largely untouched during the first wave, it has recently had to deal with a minor COVID-19 outbreak. There are currently 10 active cases among residents and two others have died since testing positive. 

The Château Royal isn't alone either. Fulford Residence, a seniors' home that caters toward women, has been dealing with an even larger COVID-19 outbreak. All but three residents have been infected there, along with about 80 per cent of staff. 

Jean Snow, a 99-year-old woman who worked with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, is among them. 

Her daughter, Katherine Snow, wonders if her mother might not have gotten the virus had she received the vaccine by now. 

"It's devastating. It's difficult to understand," said Snow. "Even though I know that people in public health are doing everything as best they can, it's still particularly difficult to see the totally vulnerable elderly population struggling and being told that they would have the vaccine and in fact they don't." 

Snow wishes that all elderly Quebecers over the age of 90 had been included in the province's first batch of vaccine recipients. 

"A vulnerable population is a vulnerable population, if they live in public or private or at home," she said. 

According to Marie-France Lacoste, Fulford's director, many of the home's residents suffer from memory loss, making it difficult for them to properly self-isolate and follow public health guidelines. 

The home says all permission forms at the home are ready and waiting for when the vaccine arrives.

Changes in vaccine rollout

Initially, the province was expecting to receive 46,800 more doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week. Instead, it is set to receive just over 8,775. 

When the delay in shipments was first announced, the province said it would have to make some changes to its vaccination campaign.

At that point, the province still planned to inoculate RPA residents starting Jan. 25 but at a slower rate — and hoped to vaccinate 21,000 residents by Feb. 8, instead of its initial goal of 36,000. 

It is now unclear when residents of the province's private retirement homes will begin receiving the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The federal government announced last week Pfizer would temporarily reduce shipments of its vaccine to Canada because it is pausing some production lines at its facility in Puurs, Belgium, to expand long-term manufacturing capacity.

So far, 218,755 people have been vaccinated in Quebec, including more than 34,000 CHSLD residents. Some RPAs in Quebec, including in Beauce, Abitibi and the Gaspé Peninsula, have also begun vaccinations — but the majority have not. 

Dr. Quoc Dinh Nguyen, a geriatrician who specializes in immunology at the Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal, said while it's important for all people over 70 to be prioritized in the vaccine campaign, it makes sense to put CHSLD residents first. 

"If you compare residents in long-term care, in CHSLDs, with those in RPAs, people in CHSLDs have had more disease in proportion and have had more deaths," said Nguyen. 

"And you can see across the world, that's pretty much what's been the trend and what's been decided."

When the RPA campaign does officially get underway, Nguyen hopes to see homes that have more at-risk residents prioritized.

"I don't know if the government has a priority of which RPAs will get the vaccine first, what regions of Quebec will get their vaccine first," Nguyen said. "But of course, the greater the transmission, the older and sicker people are, I think those people should be prioritized." 

With files from Simon Nakonechny and Matt D'Amours

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