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‘It’s a miracle’: First COVID-19 vaccine shipments arrive in Canada


By Jillian Kestler-D’Amours and Christopher Reynolds

MONTREAL — Beverly Spanier says it’s a miracle.

The 75-year-old resident of Maimonides Geriatric Centre will be among the first in Canada to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which could be administered as early as Monday at the Montreal long-term care home.

“We’re celebrating Hanukkah, which is a time of miracles. It’s absolutely a miracle that we’re about to receive this vaccine so quickly,” Spanier, who is paralyzed from the waist down, said in an interview Sunday.

The Public Health Agency of Canada said some of the 30,000 initial doses of the vaccine will begin to touch down for transport to 14 distribution sites across the country Sunday night, with more crossing the border via plane and truck on Monday.

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All 10 provinces have sites, but the vaccine will not go to the territories. The Pfizer vaccine’s -70 C storage temperatures make stocking it in the territories difficult, health authorities say.

Priority vaccinations

Front-line health-care workers and long-term care residents will be among the first to be inoculated.

Maimonides is one of two long-term care facilities in Quebec that will receive the first doses of the vaccine. The other is Saint-Antoine in Quebec City, where public health officials said resident Gisele Levesque would be the first to be vaccinated.

Her nieces, in a press release, said Levesque, who moved into the facility just as the pandemic broke out in March, was calm and direct about being No. 1 on the list, saying simply, ‘I was chosen, of course.’“

While it’s unclear what percentage of people will opt to be vaccinated, demand appears to be very high in at least one province.

In Manitoba, which reported 273 new COVID-19 cases and seven additional deaths linked to the virus on Sunday, the government said it received over 100,000 calls from people trying to book appointments for the vaccine.

Only 900 spots are available to receive the first doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, however, with strict criteria on who is eligible. Half the spots were already filled by Sunday morning, the province said.

More cases in Ontario, Quebec

News of the vaccines’ imminent arrival came as Quebec and Ontario — the provinces with the most COVID-19 cases — reported a combined 3,671 new positive tests and 49 additional deaths linked to the virus.

Francine Dupuis, associate CEO of the Montreal regional health agency, said she expects to receive two boxes each containing 975 doses of the vaccine.

She said teams of health-care workers have been ready to administer the vaccines since Friday, but that they don’t know exactly when the shipments will arrive.

“It’s a well-kept secret,” Dupuis said in an interview Sunday morning. “No one knows right now.”

About 90 to 95 percent of eligible Maimonides residents have accepted to take the vaccine, she said. That means around 300 residents could be inoculated.

Health-care workers at Maimonides will be vaccinated next, and then the remaining doses will go to health-care workers at other long-term care homes, Dupuis said.

She said none of the initial doses would be set aside, as more shipments are expected to arrive to ensure people get their required second shot 21 days later.

Lucie Tremblay, the director of nursing for the Montreal regional health agency, said Maimonides was chosen because it is one of the province’s largest long-term care homes and it has a freezer that can store the Pfizer vaccine at extremely low temperatures.

She added that nurses from Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital will be deployed to the facility to help administer the doses and a doctor will also be present.

Protecting the vulnerable

Tremblay said the goal is to administer all the vaccine within a week of the doses arriving.

“This is a great tool to protect our very vulnerable elderly,” she said. “Knowing that we’re going to be able to vaccinate them reassures me a great deal.”

Spanier said while she is extremely grateful to be receiving the vaccine, she is well aware of the toll COVID-19 has taken on those around her.

“It’s not a time for happy partying because we’re getting this vaccine,” she said on Sunday.

“It’s a time to remember: remember what this means, remember the losses that we had, remember that we want to protect every other person we can protect from getting this disease.”

That was echoed by Rabbi Ronnie Cahana, 67, who has lived at Maimonides since 2012 following a brain-stem stroke that left him quadriplegic.

“It’s the greatest mitzvah — it’s the greatest act of love and kindness that we can do for our fellow humans,” Cahana said of vaccination. “If we have a chance to save others, we should run at that chance.”

Kitra Cahana, one of the rabbi’s five children, expressed concern for residents’ ongoing vulnerability, but said she is “overjoyed” about the vaccine and grateful to staff who have helped her father over the past 10 months.

“They’ve sacrificed themselves and their own families, their own health, their own safety. They’re worked to exhaustion, and we have ? endless gratitude for what they have given.”

Before the pandemic, Cahana was undergoing physiotherapy three times per week and visiting family for Shabbat every Friday, with friends and congregants dropping by his residence routinely.

Restrictions ended all that, and Cahana has rarely left his bed since March, losing 30 pounds during the first wave, his daughter said.

Kitra also noted her frustration over how governments have handled a pandemic that killed more than four dozen residents of Maimonides.

“For those individuals the vaccine has come too late,” she said.

“We’re seeing a repeat of what happened in the springtime in the second wave, and it’s been devastating. It’s been devastating to see how our elders and those who are most vulnerable amongst us and the heroes that care for them have been treated.”

With files from Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton