Parents of schoolchildren in two Montreal neighbourhoods to get vaccines immediately in effort to fight variants
MONTREAL -- All parents of schoolchildren in two Montreal neighbourhoods will be getting COVID-19 vaccines immediately, they learned Wednesday, in a new pilot project that proved controversial even before it was officially announced.
Parents of all kids and teenagers attending daycare or school in Cote-St-Luc and what health officials called "Plamondon" (Plamondon St. and surrounding area) both west of downtown, will be offered vaccines months ahead of when they’d normally be eligible in Quebec’s mostly age-based priority sequence.
The move is meant as an attack on COVID-19 variants, the rate of which has been soaring in those areas.
But for people much more vulnerable to the virus than healthy, relatively young parents, many in their 30s and 40s, the news stings, one said.
“I'm a bit floored, flabbergasted, livid about it,” said one Montreal mother whose son, a young adult with a serious heart condition, will wait much longer than the parents to get his first dose.
She asked to remain anonymous because she works in the health-care system and is concerned about backlash for critizing the vaccine strategy.
“It's crazy to me that these people are going to get the vaccine before my son."
But another mother, a 50-year-old who will be getting the vaccine under the new program, said what's happening locally with the variants is “scary” and that she’s been living in daily anxiety as well.
Montreal public health director Mylene Drouin addressed concerns about the new pilot project during a news conference on Thursday. She told reporters that the city is seeing more and more variants in new cases, but some regions are seeing a higher concentration of them.
“Cote-St-Luc and Plamondon represent 26 per cent of all our new cases of variants,” she said.
“For example, in Cote Saint-Luc, we have seen 86 per cent of variants were associated with a case in a daycare or school. So, the pattern of transmission that we’re seeing in those neighbourhoods is that we have outbreaks in daycares or schools that come in households with a high attack rate and then it moves to workplaces and other community settings.”
The goal of the pilot project, she said, is to evaluate the results of vaccinations in parents after two weeks to see if it reduces the number of cases in those hard-hit neighbourhoods.
According to a notice sent by the principal of a private high school in Cote-St-Luc, a meeting was called late Wednesday afternoon for leaders at several local schools to inform them of it.
The notice, from the principal of Bialik high school, said the meeting was held jointly by Montreal Public Health and by the West-Central Montreal health district.
SCHOOLS, DAYCARES ARE 'MOTOR' FOR VARIANTS: AUTHORITIES
"Our surveillance makes clear that childcare and school settings are the motor of transmission” for the variants, which now account for almost a quarter of new COVID-19 cases in the two neighbourhoods, said a letter written by health officials and sent to childcare service directors, which was provided to CTV Montreal.
“We’re therefore asking for your help to pass along an invitation to all staff members and parents of your setting, regardless of their age, to come get vaccinated between March 22 and April 4,” in one of the city’s existing mass vaccination sites, said the letter.
Montreal is currently allowing people 65 and over to book vaccine appointments, and a large majority of the more elderly, especially those over 80, have already been vaccinated.
Many health-care workers were also prioritized out of the age sequence, along with people in remote communities.
AGE-BASED PRIORITY SYSTEM OTHERWISE VERY STRICT
However, there are few other allowances letting Quebecers step out of the age sequence now, even for those with serious conditions.
People under 60 with chronic illness are in one of the last priority groups -- they're the eighth of 10 groups eligible for vaccines. The province has denied repeated calls to move up certain people, including people with cancer, diabetes and serious lung conditions.
"I have a young adult son who's vulnerable, who has a serious health condition, and we've been holding our breath, anxiously awaiting for him to receive the vaccine," said the mother, who didn't want her name to be published as she works in the health system.
To hear that young, healthy parents would get the vaccine before her son, who has a heart condition, and also before people with conditions like cystic fibrosis, left her stunned.
If schools in those neighbourhoods are such a problem, she asked, why not close them?
"To have such a scarce supply of vaccine in our province -- you know, I'm not a public health official, so I can't understand the logic and rationale behind their decisions, but if they're worried about that, for me it seems more logical to close the schools," she said.
'A SCARY AREA'
Donna Litvack, who has two teenagers going to school in Cote-St-Luc, said it's already clear there will be blowback from the decision.
"I told my mom right away, and she was actually upset with me," Litvack told CTV. "She said, 'Your own grandmother hasn't had it yet!' I can only imagine the anger that's going to be fuelled by this move."
However, Litvack said she felt "giddy" with relief and happiness when she got the news.
The idea is "kind of craziness," she said, but "it's a scary area we live in. The first wave we had it here too, from the get-go, and again for some reason the variant is going crazy here."
Cote-St-Luc was hit hard by COVID-19 at the very beginning of the pandemic. Now, several local schools have had outbreaks with the UK variant, which is both more contagious and leads to more serious illness, health officials wrote in their briefing note to childcare directors.
"I send my kids to school every day and I have a pit in my stomach: is this the day they're going to bring it home? And it's all going to go downhill from here?" said Litvack.
The danger of the variant has hit close to home: two of Litvack's elderly neighbours died this month of it, a loss she called "shocking, beyond comprehension." Their son, only in his early 40s, spent more than a week in intensive care.
Fearing the virus, she kept her kids home from their private school in the fall semester until November, she said, but ended up sending them back because "the kids were suffering at home."
TEACHERS ANGRY TO BE LEFT OUT
Quebec teachers have also asked to be moved up in the priority sequence, as a group, but the province has said it has no plans to dramatically speed their vaccination up, though it may tweak their eligibility within their existing priority level.
One teacher, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of stigma from other teachers, said she was unimpressed that students and parents, but not teachers, will be vaccinated in the pilot project.
"Part of me can understand it, but it doesn't justify it to me," the teacher said.
"I right now have a student being tested in my class -- I could have been exposed to the variant every day -- and I don't think this should take priority over the teachers."
The teacher said they have no faith that the government will alter the project to include teachers.
"I get that the kids are taking it home, so they're spreading it at home, but so are the teachers," the person said. "I can spread it, so why don't I get the same respect?"
-- With reporting from CTV News Montreal's Kelly Greig