Montreal

As vaccine deliveries resume, pressure shifts onto Quebec to ramp up its inoculation campaign

Health Minister Christian Dubé has been pointing at his watch and urging Ottawa to give Quebec more vaccines to administer. He now has his wish, and it's up to the province's vaccination strategy to kick into high gear.

Health minister says 91,000 doses are expected this week

An empty vaccination station at the Palais des congrès de Montréal. With more than 700,000 doses of vaccine arriving in the coming weeks, the province is poised to step up its mass inoculation. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Quebec is preparing to ramp up its mass inoculation program this week, following a four-week pause during which COVID-19 vaccine deliveries slowed to a trickle.

The province hasn't been shy about its discontent with the federal government's procurement schedule, but now the focus shifts back to Quebec's ability to deliver vaccines on a large scale as the spectre of infectious new variants looms on the near horizon.

A total of 91,260 new doses will arrive in Quebec this week from Pfizer-BioNTech.

Health Minister Christian Dubé indicated via his personal Twitter account that "we are going to be able to increase the pace of vaccination and focus our efforts in [private seniors' residences]."

Dubé's initial plan called for 99,000 residents of seniors' homes to be vaccinated by the end of next week, although that target went out the window when Pfizer temporarily slowed the output at its facility in Belgium in order to expand the production line.

At the same time, the Health Ministry said on Monday it had given 180,448 health-care workers their first of two shots, representing 56 per cent of its target of 325,000.

Based on a timeline unveiled Jan. 14, the province had hoped to give one dose of vaccine to 250,000 people by Feb. 8. It had given out 294,886 as of Feb. 14. There is ground to make up, but perhaps not quite as much as initially feared.

And Dubé has indicated there could be a slight course correction soon: on Friday he said there's a need "to concentrate a little more vaccines" in the greater Montreal region.

A message seeking clarity from his department on exactly what that might entail hadn't been returned as of this writing.

A health-care worker sets up welcome station at a new vaccination site in downtown Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

The province has set up spiffy new mass vaccination sites in the province's major urban centres in anticipation of the spigot opening. It appears that's happening. Ottawa's schedule indicates Quebec will receive at least 100,000 doses per week for the next seven weeks (the number will increase if Moderna is able to supply more vaccines).

Using them all will require the province to roughly double the number of shots it gave weekly in early January.

Dubé has said that's a simple ask. But the short-term test is seniors' homes.

There are several new data points suggesting the strategy to focus the initial doses on long-term care homes (CHSLDs), health-care workers and residences for the aged could be starting to pay off.

According to the ministry's statistics, absenteeism among health-care workers has plunged from average of around 8,000 per day in mid-January to 5,600 — the lowest level since November.

The Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ) released polling data that indicates three in four Quebecers will agree to be vaccinated if one becomes available, and that vaccine hesitancy is lessening among health-care workers — a potential issue among those who work in CHSLDs, according to anecdotal reports.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé inspects a freezer that will be used to store the vaccines until they are administered. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Most of all, there is the shrinking number of new cases, hospitalizations and outbreaks involving CHSLDs (only one in the province currently has an outbreak affecting more than 15 per cent of its residents, per provincial data).

Preliminary research published last week by doctors in Israel confirmed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine's effectiveness among the elderly. Clinical trials found the vaccine to be 95 per cent effective, and the real-world experience in Israel showed a similar, if marginally lower, rate of protection.

Quebec is conducting its own study and according to Dr. Gaston De Serres, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist at the INSPQ, the indications are the data will align with those of the Israeli researchers.

"We're looking at it week to week, up to now the results seem to point to similar conclusions. We have to finalize a few things before making it public, but it's headed in the right direction for the results we see in Quebec," said De Serres, who sits on the provincial immunization commission that recommended holding off on second doses for up to 90 days.

De Serres said the improving COVID-19 picture this month, particularly in CHSLDs, is a function of three main factors: vaccination among the vulnerable, an overall decrease in community spread and the fact health-care workers are better protected and no longer spreading the novel coronavirus.

"The challenge is teasing out what is attributable to one or the other," De Serres told Radio-Canada's Tout un matin. "But what we can see right now is a major drop in infections in those long-term care centres."

with files from Radio-Canada

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