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Flu shot now free for all Quebecers in 'exceptional' response to crowded ERs


All Quebecers are now eligible to get their influenza shot for free, Quebec announced Friday morning, in an "exceptional" move pushed by a particularly strong flu season and increased traffic in emergency rooms.

It's a marked reversal of policy in Quebec since previously, the flu was not free for everyone — only those deemed to be at a high risk of serious infection were eligible to get it for free, while the rest of the population had to pay out-of-pocket.

Health experts say they welcome the decision by Quebec, but say the province is late to the game as they are already dealing with larger surges than usual in emergency rooms everywhere.

"I was elated that they finally woke up and smelled the coffee, but it's just a bit too late because this week I'm attending on the wards, and it's half RSV and half influenza," said Dr. Earl Rubin, director of Montreal Children's Hospital infectious diseases division.

Anyone looking to book an appointment can find one at

Quebec public health is urging people in high-risk groups in particular to get the shot, including those over 60, those in their second and third trimesters of pregnancy, and people with compromised immune systems. People living with at-risk housemates are also encouraged to get vaccinated, as well as support workers.

Families of children under six and health-care workers should also book their shots, public health said.

People who already paid for their shot will not be reimbursed, according to the government. 

Dr. Rubin said he hopes the positive announcement comes with awareness campaigns since Quebecers are not used to widely accessible flu vaccinations.

He said right now his ER is like a "war zone" with children flooding the hospital with respiratory viruses.

"I have been doing this for 35 years I have never seen it as it is now. Ever," he said, adding that making the shot available to all is providing some hope.

"Right now, our emergency rooms and clinics are overwhelmed. It will not only help the medical system, and it will help the children because they're sick. And once you've had flu, you're convinced you want the flu vaccine the following year."


Over the last few weeks, influenza cases have increased almost six-fold in Quebec, a trend that's expected to continue, said McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Donald Vinh, as he reacted to news about the free flu shots. As a result, his advice to those who are ambivalent about getting the vaccine is unequivocal.

"There is a good match to what's in the vaccine and what's circulating, so people should not try to find reasons to avoid the flu shot. They should try to find a location where they can get a flu shot," he said.

"We have to see this as a positive step in the right direction, even if it's quite a bit late…there is still an opportunity for us to get the outbreak of flu under control," he said.

Vinh also described the government's delayed reaction as a missed opportunity, especially because the province ramped up this season's vaccination campaign a month earlier than usual, in early October.

"Had we been proactive, and not only had an earlier start to the vaccination season but also made it widely and freely available, as is done in other provinces, we may have been able to sort of buffer or mitigate the subsequent few weeks," said Vinh.

As for those who might downplay the flu shot's effectiveness, he suggested they reconsider the odds, and see the glass as half full.

"It's 50 per cent effective in preventing you from being hospitalized. If you want to play Lotto Max, that is an amazing statistic …and a no brainer," when it comes to betting on the flu shot, he said, explaining that people who get inoculated may still feel flu-ish and lousy if they catch it, but are far less likely to have a severe case.


The lifting of all restrictions on flu shots come after emergency care health workers sounded the alarm over increased traffic in ERs, spreading resources thin for those struggling with virus symptoms and those needing care for other reasons. 

Earlier this week, Ste-Justine Hospital's chief pediatrics Dr. Anne Monique Nuyt said her hospital had reached "historic," and "unprecedented" levels of crowding. 

"It's not something we've seen in 20 years," she told CTV. 

The Montreal Children's Hospital was forced to delay several surgeries due in part to a lack of available beds. 

Part of that overcrowding is being blamed on the exceptionally high rates of virus circulation, specifically, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). 

Quebec public health noted a triple-threat of viruses is making its way through the population, as the flu, RSV, and COVID-19 continue to spread through the province. 

Public health said the free vaccine program will be reevaluated next year.

With files from CTV Montreal's Tania Krywiak and Joe Lofaro Top Stories

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