Quebec has inked a deal with pharmacies to allow them to give the COVID-19 vaccine as mass inoculation gets underway in the province and health officials are concerned about the possible surge and spread of variants in Montreal.
Health Minister Christian Dubé confirmed the decision Tuesday during a news conference, saying 350 pharmacies in Montreal will soon start giving out the dose based on the government’s schedule.
Appointments will be taken for pharmacies for March 15 onward and the province will soon publish a list of where vaccinations will be administered.
“Vaccination is our weapon of massive risk reduction,” he told reporters in Montreal.
Under the plan, vaccinations are now open to Quebecers aged 85 and older in most regions. However, registration is open to people as young as 70 in the Montreal area, which has been a hot spot for the virus.
Dubé also said the Montreal region is being prioritized in part because of the presence of more contagious variants, such as the B.1.1.7 mutation that was first identified in the United Kingdom.
After complaints of long lines on Monday, Dubé said he wants to remind people who have booked their appointment for the first dose not to show up too early.
When vaccines first became available in December, the province focused on vaccinating priority groups such as residents in long-term care homes and seniors residences as well as health-care employees on the front lines of the health crisis.
While there is a downward trend of COVID-19 indicators in Quebec, officials say they are concerned about the potential uptick of variants, which are considered to be more transmissible.
As of Tuesday, Quebec’s public health institute has reported 137 confirmed infections that are linked to novel coronavirus variants and 1,095 presumptive cases. The confirmed cases are mostly located in Montreal, according to Dubé.
“We are afraid,” he said. “We are afraid that Montreal is the calm before the storm.”
Dr. Horacio Arruda, director of Quebec public health, says authorities are still screening each positive case in Montreal to see if they linked to variants in order to curb the a potential spread.
That is why the province has to remain prudent right now and why public health has been more aggressive in its approach, he added.
“If we let them explode, they are going to take over,” he said.
Arruda also defended a new restriction to make pediatric masks mandatory for all elementary school students in regions on high alert after the March break.
“Children can be more easily contagious, be transmitters. It’s a way to protect them and their families,” he said.
Dubé would not say if restrictions will be extended in the region, which is a designated pandemic-red zone because it is has been hard hit by the virus. Quebec Premier François Legault is expected to provide an update on the health crisis’ progression Wednesday evening.
— With files from The Canadian Press