MONTREAL — Quebec has reached a deal with pharmacies that will allow them to start administering COVID-19 vaccines by mid-March to help the province get ahead of more contagious virus variants, Health Minister Christian Dube said Tuesday.
Some 350 pharmacies in the Montreal area will start taking appointments by March 15 for people as young as 70, he said. The program will eventually expand to more than 1,400 pharmacies across the province that will administer about two million doses, Dube added.
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, Dube said, adding that pharmacy vaccination was originally scheduled to begin in early April but was sped up.
"We're afraid," Dube said about the possibility that the U.K. mutation will cause infections to rise quickly in the province's biggest city. "We’re afraid the Montreal region is the calm before the storm."
Quebec reported 588 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday and eight more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. Hospitalizations rose by 16 to 628, and 121 people were in intensive care, a drop of one.
Dube said that while the general COVID-19 curve is dropping, cases of the U.K. variant are rising quickly, especially in the greater Montreal area. The province has confirmed 137 cases of variants, most of which have been identified in Montreal and involve the U.K. mutation. There are also 1,095 presumptive variant cases across Quebec, according to the province's public health institute.
He said Quebec is screening all its positive Montreal-area COVID-19 tests, and that 12 to 15 per cent are coming back as variants. Vaccination, he said, "is our weapon of massive risk reduction."
The province began vaccinating older members of the general public at mass vaccine centres on Monday, and administered 16,458 doses that day. COVID-19 vaccinations are open to Quebecers aged 85 and older in outlying regions, while they are open to people as young as 70 in the Montreal area.
Quebec is not the only province that has announced plans to vaccine in pharmacies.
Health officials in Nova Scotia said Tuesday vaccination rollout plans for this month include the province's first pharmacy clinics. Prototype pharmacy clinics will launch in Halifax and Shelburne on March 9, Port Hawkesbury on March 16 and Springhill on March 23.
Ontario has said that in the coming months, it plans to expand access to COVID-19 vaccines to a number of settings, including pharmacies. That plan is contingent on the province receiving a greater quantity of vaccine, the Ministry of Health has said.
Benoit Morin, the head of an association representing Quebec pharmacy owners, says close to 1,500 of the group’s 1,900 members have offered to vaccinate. He said the recent flu shot campaign has prepared pharmacists for the demands of giving COVID-19 vaccines because the same distancing and health measures had to be followed.
Morin said pharmacy vaccination could be a good choice for people who can’t or don’t want to go to mass vaccine centres, but he urged people to take the first appointments they can get rather than waiting for pharmacies.
"If I had the chance to get a vaccine today or to wait for the pharmacy, I’d go today," he said in an interview Tuesday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2021.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press