As first Quebecers get vaccinated against COVID-19, leaders see light at end of long, dark tunnel
An 89-year-old Quebec City resident boldly takes the first step in historic national vaccination program
It's been 291 days since the first case of a deadly new virus was recorded in Quebec. Since then COVID-19 has killed 7,533 people in the province, left hundreds with long-lasting symptoms and disrupted the lives of everyone else, young and old.
But on Monday, around 11:30 a.m., 89-year-old Gisèle Lévesque rolled up her sleeve and became the first Canadian to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, setting in motion a giant inoculation effort that promises to end the nightmare.
"I see this as the first step forward into the light,'' federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu said at a news conference in Montreal, not long after vaccines began to be administered in Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto.
It was by the most prosaic of means that the first batches of the vaccine arrived at CHSLD Saint-Antoine in Quebec City, where Lévesque lives, and the Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Côte Saint-Luc: UPS delivery truck.
Inside, staff had been practising how to handle the precious cargo. The vaccine, manufactured by Pfizer and BioNTech, has to be stored between –80 C to –60 C, and then thawed for injection.
Quebec will receive only 4,000 doses this week and selected two centrally located long-term care homes in an effort to vaccinate as many residents and staff as possible.
The provincial health minister, Christian Dubé, said everything went according to plan on Monday. He expects there will be 21 vaccination sites in the province by next week, and predicted as many as 50,000 Quebecers will be vaccinated by early January.
"Usually, I'm very calm. But, as you can see, I'm quite excited. This is great news for Quebec," Dubé told reporters Monday, outside Maimonides.
'It's important to keep living'
The excitement was palpable. After months of tightly structured briefings from health officials and political leaders, all formality dissolved when staff at Maimonides escorted 78-year-old Gloria Lallouz outside.
Lallouz was the first resident to receive the vaccine, and both journalists and politicians alike abandoned the news conference to applaud her, thank her and ask her how she felt.
"Fabulous," she said. Lallouz had been confined to her room for months because of the pandemic, and she said she relished the prospect of regaining some freedom.
"It's important to keep living," she said.
The pandemic has exacted a heavy toll on Maimonides, as it has on dozens of other CHSLDs around Quebec. Fifteen residents at Maimonides have died of COVID-19 this fall, on top of nearly forty who were killed in the spring.
Nearly all of the 300 residents have signed up to receive the vaccine. "We need to stop the deaths here," said Beverly Spanier, a retired school teacher and Maimonides resident who was also vaccinated on Monday.
"We cannot continue to go on forever in a situation where no one can leave their rooms, where we can't have a life of normalcy," Spanier added.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires two injections three weeks apart in order for the immunity to develop. Spanier said she has big plans once she gets the second dose, including visiting a dentist as well as a friend in intensive care.
"I will have a big sign on me: 'Vaccinated, let me out,'" she said.
Signs of reluctance among staff
Along with the residents at Maimonides and the CHSLD Saint-Antoine, staff and other local health-care workers will be among the first Quebecers to receive the vaccine this week.
But whereas the residents have volunteered in large numbers for the shots, there were some signs of reluctance among health-care workers on Monday morning.
A senior Montreal-area health official told Radio-Canada that only between 35 and 40 per cent of the staff at Maimonides had signed up for the vaccine.
"There is more work to do to increase overall vaccinations," Francine Dupuis, the associate CEO of the health authority that oversees Maimonides, told reporters at the news conference.
She explained that some health-care workers wanted to wait and see if the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will have any side-effects.
Only mild side-effects — such as fever or fatigue, which are common with vaccines — have been reported so far. Health Canada says it has no safety concerns.
"I think the vaccine is something that will take some time to get accustomed to," Dubé said. "We said very clearly over the last few weeks we will not force anybody to be vaccinated. I think that's the best way to go."
More restrictions coming
While the vaccinations on Monday sent ripples of hope throughout the province, the virus continues to wreak havoc across the province.
The number of daily cases continues to climb and hospitals in Quebec City and Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean are struggling to keep up with the surge of COVID-19 patients.
Premier François Legault is expected to announce additional closures and restrictions on Tuesday, in an attempt to use the holiday period to slow the spread of the disease.
"We're going to have to tighten restrictions in businesses," he said in an interview on Monday. "We will have to close them for a time. There are too many contacts, and we have to reduce them."
With files from Jay Turnbull, Valeria Cori-Manocchio, CBC's Daybreak and Radio-Canada