'Choose five patients': Patients, staff at Montreal cancer centres say vaccine rollout is unplanned mess
MONTREAL -- Quebec leaders announced last week they had a plan to start vaccinating the most medically vulnerable, but those charged with carrying out the plan say they didn’t get a heads-up, nor is it easily workable.
That’s why, they say, several days into their eligibility window, many extremely sick cancer patients and others can’t get a shot, even while many less sick are managing to do so.
Some seriously ill patients have also been told that a very small supply of vaccine was sent for them, forcing their doctors into a sort of Sophie’s Choice scenario.
“After many phone calls back and forth... I [was told] that each oncologist was told that they could choose five patients that they could get their vaccine,” said Shari Neudorf, whose 58-year-old husband, Randy Rotchin, has stage four melanoma.
“Are you kidding me? How can you ask an oncologist who has probably thousands of patients to choose five patients? I kept pinching myself—is this for real?”
Many are angry this week after the latest problems in what was already a confusing, disordered rollout process for people with chronic health conditions.
A relatively small group of very vulnerable Quebecers under 60, including those getting hospital-based dialysis and cancer treatment, were supposed to become eligible on Monday and were told they’d get their shots at their treating hospitals.
So far, at least on paper, they’re the only people in the province whose pre-existing conditions make them eligible.
But while many with less serious conditions report getting shots at pharmacies, those in the priority group have reported being given a “runaround” between different agencies, with hospitals scrambling to follow provincial orders or turning them away.
The problem is the hospitals didn’t even know the idea of hospital-based shots was on the table, said one health-care workers at the Glen Hospital’s cancer centre.
“Everybody heard Legault on the news conference announce that... oncologists would be responsible for vaccinating their patients, and I think it kind of caught people by surprise,” she said.
“The next day patients were asking about it, and there wasn't a program in place,” said the worker, who didn’t want to be named since staff aren’t authorized to speak to media.
“There's this infrastructure in place for vaccinating the public. I’m not sure why they didn't try to use that.”
People in various health districts report similar problems. David Gallo, a cancer patient at the Lakeshore Hospital, told CTV the hospital simply said it wasn’t equipped to give the shot. (It later told CTV that outpatient shots will begin soon.)
Neudorf, whose husband is being treated at the Glen, was told that shots would begin there late this week, but only for a small group, and then was told they’d been delayed until next week.
A spokesperson for the McGill University Health Centre, which runs the Glen, told CTV that the rollout will begin “gradually” starting Friday, five days after eligibility opened.
“Following ministerial directives, the MUHC will gradually extend, as of April 16, COVID-19 vaccination to certain people under 60 years of age with chronic diseases,” wrote Evelyne Dufresne in a statement.
She said she couldn’t comment on the amount of vaccine supply that had been provided to the hospital.
The provincial health ministry said in a statement that "hospitals are in the process of structuring their ability offer services to hospitalized patients and to people undergoing outpatient follow-up," and that "the capacity will therefore increase very soon."
The ministry also asked for patience in this unprecedented moment.
"Remember that vaccination is a complex operation and this is the first time that an operation of this magnitude has been carried out," it wrote.
"It is therefore normal and expected that adjustments be made."
‘THEY JUST DON’T MATTER’
Neudorf said that for her and her husband, the wait has been very difficult. He only leaves the house every 21 days for his treatment, she said.
When COVID-19 hit, they even asked their then-21-year-old daughter to move out since she could potentially infect her dad and it would be “lights out,” Neudorf said.
So to hear there was no real plan left her “dumbfounded,” she said, and feeling patients like her husband are “expendable” to the province.
“These people are isolating because they really are high-risk, so if they're isolating they're not spreaders… it breaks my heart, but I feel like they just don't matter, you know?”
Neudorf is also baffled, she said, about why the province is forcing these shots to happen at hospitals in the first place. She and her husband would love to go to a mass vaccination centre—where staff are often idle right now—but shots can’t be booked online for anyone in this group.
While most hospitals are also running big mass vaccination centres, it’s hard to set up smaller in-hospital clinics, said the staff member at the Glen.
Asking specialists to give out vaccines during appointments would be “logistically difficult,” she said, and it risks wasting doses since it doesn’t allow thawed vials to be doled out quickly. Oncologists, at least, are also extremely busy, she said—now more than ever, after months of backed-up treatment.
MANY GETTING SHOTS AT PHARMACIES
Meanwhile, people are beginning to report on social media that pharmacists are giving out plenty of doses to people with much less serious conditions, though that kind of access is very uneven.
For example, a woman named Angela who lives with Crohn’s disease, among other problems, told CTV that she had called around to several pharmacies and was told her conditions didn’t qualify her. But on Thursday, one pharmacist said she was eligible, and that there was a shot available for her.
Angela did not want to use her real name, because she is worried her employer will let her go if she knows she has a chronic illness.
Others under 60 reported getting pharmacy shots for common ailments like high blood pressure.
On Thursday, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé was asked about the confusion and frustration over vaccines for this group, but his answers didn’t clear things up.
He said that in the last 24 hours, from Wednesday to Thursday, the province had had extra discussions with pharmacists in order to give them more flexibility to vaccinate people with chronic illnesses.
However, when CTV contacted Quebec’s association of owner-operated pharmacists, they said that as far as they knew, they were to only give the vaccine to the officially approved priority groups, and to vaccinate others only if they had leftovers.
With only about 100 doses every two weeks to each pharmacy, the spokesperson said, they don’t seem to have much left over.
--With files from CTV’s Caroline Van Vlaardingen