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MONTREAL -- Quebec’s first COVID-19 vaccines will go to a group of 40,000 elderly residents of long-term care homes, authorities said Monday.
The province is announcing the specifics of how it will be rolling out vaccines, first in a technical briefing in the morning and then in an afternoon press conference.
"Things are becoming concrete and the arrival of the vaccine is imminent," said Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé, saying vaccinations will begin next week.
In a surprise announcement earlier in the day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada will get its first batch of vaccine -- up to 250,000 of them -- just a week from now, if the vaccine is approved by Health Canada, a process that's underway.
Dubé said Quebec will receive 4,000 doses of that first shipment. This means 2,000 people can be vaccinated, since each person requires two doses, three weeks apart.
Things look set to progress quickly from there, said Dubé: there should be enough doses sent in the first three months of the new year to vaccinate 650,000 Quebecers by the end of March.
The province also seems to have the staffing capacity to handle these numbers, said Dubé, considering that 1.1 million Quebecers have been vaccinated against the flu just in the last month.
However, the province announced last week it will train a wide variety of extra professionals, including veterinarians, midwives, speech pathologists, dentists and medical students to give the vaccines.
WHO COMES FIRST?
Quebec has come up with a system for allocating vaccines in order of priority, taking into account age, chronic conditions and a host of other factors.
But the first two groups in line will be long-term care home residents, followed by a much bigger group of 325,000 health professionals, two Quebec health officials said in the technical briefing.
Four care homes in the Montreal area have been identified as part of a bigger group of sites across Quebec to get some of the first deliveries.
These places needed to be designated well in advance, said Dubé, since the vaccine must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius and Pfizer, the manufacturer, needed to know where to deliver. (Vaccines made by Moderna, which are easier to store, will be added starting in early 2021, Dubé said.)
Over the next few weeks, as more vaccine arrives, it will go to a wider group of publicly run care homes, and then to health workers when capacity allows.
In order of priority, the next to get vaccines will be residents of private seniors' care homes, then people living in geographically isolated communities.
The next three groups in line will be, in order, all people over 80, all people over 70, then all people over 60, according to the technical briefing.
That will be followed by people under 60 who have medical conditions -- a very big group comprising over a million people, the province said.
The next priority will be essential workers under the age of 60 in fields other than health.
They will be followed by the rest of the population, a group of about 3.4 million.
Despite the ordered list, health authorities said their hope is to receive enough of the vaccine that those first two groups -- CHSLD residents and health workers -- can be vaccinated more or less concurrently.
Dubé said the province had a "dilemma" in knowing how to prioritize those two groups, likening the situation to the moment in an airplane when oxygen masks drop down and you're supposed to put one on yourself before helping others.
"We need to be able to protect the patient, but we also need to protect the people that work for them," Dubé said.
DON'T LET YOUR GUARD DOWN: DUBÉ
Several times, Dubé implored Quebecers not to relax their vigilance in light of the vaccine beginning to arrive.
It will be many months before people will be able to start returning to normal life, authorities said in the technical briefing. Transmission of the virus will only start to drop significantly when 60 to 70 per cent of the population is vaccinated, though there are many factors that will be at play.
Some restrictions will likely be lifted when the most vulnerable have been vaccinated. However, this process is also delicate and shouldn't go too fast, according to the technical briefing, because young people can also be at serious health risk from the virus.
Most people under 60 can't expect to get their shots until the spring at earliest.
Dubé said that right now, in particular, the virus-related numbers make him very worried for the next few weeks.
"Unfortunately, we're still going to see a lot of deaths," he said.
"People can't let themselves have a false sense of... security," he said. "In the next few weeks, with all the cases that we've had .. we have a lot of people who are going to be going into the hospital."
Just a week ago, Quebec passed an alarming milestone of having over 700 COVID-19 patients in hospital. Already, just a week later, it's 800 people, he said.
"This increase is going too fast," he said, and it means that patients needing other kinds of medical care are now having that care delayed.
"We are cancelling quite a big number of appointments and surgeries," Dubé said, calling it "unfortunate." He also asked people again to avoid Christmas travel to see family, saying it may be the best way to ensure those loved ones are still alive next year.
CONCERNS ABOUT VACCINE COMPLIANCE
When asked if Quebec is considering making the vaccine mandatory -- or if it is ruling out making it mandatory -- Dubé said he doesn't have a statement on that right now.
"I'm not saying anything on it, because this is a very delicate subject," he said, also explaining that "we'll see what the experts are recommending... to us."
While there have been anti-mask protests in Quebec, the province appears to be less affected by the anti-vax movement than the rest of Canada, according to a November poll.
Nearly three-quarters of Quebecers (73 per cent) indicated they intend to be vaccinated when an approved vaccine is available, compared to 69 per cent in the rest of Canada, according to a survey conducted by Léger and the Association for Canadian Studies.
In the technical briefing, officials said that the side effects of the Pfizer vaccine found during testing were as follows: 60 per cent of people vaccinated felt fatigue in the days afterwards, 50 per cent had headaches, 30 per cent had muscle aches, and 10 per cent had fever.
--With files from The Canadian Press