Montreal

Quebec plans 'immunity passports' as thousands sign up for vaccine appointments

Health Minister Christian Dubé calls the early interest "excellent news," confirms the province has signed a deal with pharmacies to help the vaccination effort, and that Quebec will introduce so-called "immunity passports" later this year.

98,000 sign up on first day of online appointments; province strikes deal with pharmacies

People wait outside the Laval vaccination centre on Thursday, the first day vaccines were made available to Quebecers in the general population born in 1936 or earlier. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

It was a stern test for Quebec's new COVID-19 vaccination booking platform, with bookings between 8 a.m. and noon sometimes reaching rates of 12.5 per second, but Health Minister Christian Dubé says it passed.

There were glitches along the way, as one might expect, and Dubé said they'll be fixed in short order.

For example, some people booking appointments for relatives who were born in 1936 or earlier, and who themselves qualify for a vaccine because they are at least 70 and spend at least three days a week in the company of their elder, couldn't reserve the same day. 

The issue, he continued, is ensuring the vaccine supply matches the number of appointments. So if a person accompanying an elder has an appointment booked, the dose has already been set aside even if their own appointment is a day or two later. Dubé also said the problem in the reservation system will be fixed overnight.

"As long as you have an appointment, we will be able to vaccinate you at the same time," Dubé said.

By day's end, the ministry reported having booked just over 98,000 appointments.

The health minister also announced the government signed a deal with major pharmacy chains on Thursday morning.

They will help expand the vaccination effort in the coming weeks using a similar system to the influenza vaccine last fall, the first time Quebec turned to local pharmacies on a large scale. That program distributed roughly 1.2 million vaccines between the end of September and the beginning of December.

"It was very successful … so that's good news," Dubé said.

In addition, he said, the province is in the midst of concluding agreements with large employers in sectors such as manufacturing and import/export so that vaccination programs can be established in-house.

"That way companies with 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 employees can vaccinate them, and not just employees but the family of those employees and, in some regions, the general public," he said.

The challenge is to get 12 million doses into the arms of Quebecers over the next 15 to 20 weeks, he said.

The province also plans to introduce so-called "immunity passports" at some point, which will allow people to prove they've been vaccinated and make it simpler to travel and perhaps even open some sectors of the economy.

Though the program is still in the planning stages, Dubé likened it to a similar effort in 2009, when the province issued a paper record of vaccination against the H1N1 avian influenza. Only this time, it will be digital.

"Many [companies] would like to be the first to open their doors to people who have proof of vaccination," he said.

Dubé jokingly suggested "I probably went too far" in discussing an idea that isn't yet fully formed, and the opposition Québec Solidaire MNA Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois quickly agreed with him.

"I'm surprised at the casualness with which the Health Minister is launching a debate on such an ethically sensitive subject … it's not trivial or insignificant. The potentially discriminatory effects of a vaccine passport are considerable," he said. "It's not just about taking a plane or eating in a restaurant, it raises serious questions about access to housing or the ability to work."

Dubé said that with larger-than-expected deliveries slated for the coming weeks, the province should be able to vaccinate 700,000 people in the month of March. That includes providing second doses for those who have been vaccinated between December and February beginning the week of March 15.

He also urged Quebecers to exercise caution during next week's March break, and to observe public health measures.

"We are one month away from having a large number of people vaccinated … so let's be prudent," he said.

Most Quebecers eligible to get the vaccine will have to wait until at least Monday to get the vaccine, but the regional health board in Laval was ready to go having set up sites like one in the Quartier Laval shopping centre in the Chomedey district, so they began booking appointments as of noon Thursday.

"We were eager to start as soon as possible," Laval Public Health Director Jean-Pierre Trépanier told CBC Montreal Daybreak host Sean Henry.

 "All these shopping centres have been rented for a while, workers were hired and then we were waiting for the vaccines, and now they're available." 

Trépanier expected about 400 people to get their shots today, with the daily total expected to go up with more time slots becoming available. 

Up until now, vaccine doses have only been given out to residents in long-term care homes, private seniors' residences and health-care workers. More than three months have passed since the first doses were given out.

"We've been working very hard for the last year," Trépanier.

"We are going to recall every event that happened in that period, and so of course, this is [very meaningful] for me and, of course, for all of my colleagues, and probably a lot more in the population."

For now, only Quebecers born in 1936 or before are eligible, and although they can book their appointments by phone at 1-877-644-4545, the government is strongly encouraging them to reserve their spot online at quebec.ca/covidvaccine

Some exceptions are being made: people born no later than 1951 to get the vaccine if they live with someone who's already eligible, or if they are their primary caregiver.

Since the province began administering COVID-19 vaccines on Dec. 14, about 380,000 Quebecers have gotten shots, accounting for about four per cent of the population.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak and Radio-Canada

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