Montreal-area man who died of COVID-19 at 39 was unvaccinated, but had just booked his first dose

A 39-year-old Montreal-area man who died of COVID-19 this week wasn't enthusiastic about getting vaccinated, his friends say, but he'd finally decided to get his first shot this month -- right before contracting the virus.

Stefanos Govas was well-known and well-loved in the Greek community in Laval, where he grew up, and in the world of ball hockey, where he was a top athlete who competed internationally.

He was "a very, very nice guy -- down to earth, caring," said one acquaintance, Angelo Kontogonis, who ran into Govas just a couple of weeks before he died.

Kontogonis himself f isn't vaccinated yet, either, he added, but Govas's death has shaken him.

"Now, seeing this, I might actually consider getting it now, so I don't suffer the same fate."

'CONDITION DETERIORATED RAPIDLY'

Laval health authorities confirmed Thursday that an unvaccinated man in his 30s had died of COVID-19 in the emergency room at the Hôpital de la Cité-de-la-Santé on the weekend.

"He received appropriate care but his condition deteriorated rapidly," said Judith Goudreau, a spokesperson for Laval's regional health authority, in a statement.

Authorities didn't release details at the time on the man's name or age, or how long he had spent in hospital.

This week, however, people wrote hundreds of tributes online to Govas and friends confirmed that he was the patient in question.

Govas and his partner both contracted COVID-19, one friend explained, as well as one of their parents.

Though he appeared at first to be on the mend, his lungs suddenly filled with fluid and his heart stopped, she said.

Several people confirmed that he wasn't vaccinated -- not quite, at least.

Govas' partner, Kaliope Seferiadis, told Le Journal de Montreal that she and Govas "weren't anti-vaxxers" but just dragged their heels in getting their doses, knowing they were relatively young and athletic.

They had their appointments booked already, in fact, for September, but they caught COVID-19 before they could get them, she explained.

“The death of my spouse, which we are currently experiencing, is preventable. You have to get your doses as quickly as possible. If I could go back in time, that's what I would do," the paper quoted her as saying, while crying.

"At first, we just wanted to be sure it was safe. We didn't feel urgency: we're young, healthy, we eat well and are active."

Govas was a top ball-hockey player, competing six times at the sport's international championships in a Greek jersey on behalf of the Hellenic Ball Hockey Association, which is based in Montreal.

Aside from being an excellent athlete, hundreds of people wrote tributes on Facebook this week to his character, remembering him as hard-working, generous and endlessly loyal to friends and teammates.

"He was a kind soul, with a warm heart, and a beautiful voice of reason," wrote one man.

"Govas was a true gentleman, a class act and liked by all, an all around great guy," wrote another.

The Hellenic Ball Hockey Association, Ball Hockey Quebec and other international ball hockey groups wrote tributes to him as well.

"Words cannot even begin to express our sorrow," wrote Ball Hockey Quebec. "An incredible talent on the court, Stefanos Govas was an even better person... He had a genuine love and appreciation of the game, and cared an awful lot about those he came into contact with."

Govas grew up in Laval on a tight-knit street and leaves behind family in the city.

AN ATHLETE WHO NEEDED VACCINE PROOF TO PLAY

The fact that Govas was so athletic and healthy may have led to his lack of urgency around the vaccine.

However, he also knew the time was approaching when he wouldn't be able to play ball hockey anymore without getting vaccinated.

A few weeks ago, not long before he died, he ran into Kontogonis at a dépanneur in Laval. The two knew each other from school.

"He was talking about the vaccine passport -- 'Now it's here. We're going have to learn to deal with it,'" recalled Kontogonis.

He recalls Govas saying that "you can't go into certain places without it -- that's where we're headed."

Quebec began requiring proof of vaccination this week to go inside bars, restaurants and to do a host of other non-essential activities, including sports.

Ball hockey players in Montreal returned to their sport in early summer and were permitted to play without proof of vaccination for several months, while following certain rules like avoiding post-game handshakes and wearing masks inside the arena, explained one of Govas's teammates, Peter Karigiannis.

However, to play in the upcoming fall season, vaccines were required, he said.

"We all knew that the passport was coming and restrictions were coming," Karigiannis wrote to CTV. "I, for one, was always gonna get the vaccine, I just procrastinated." He got his first dose in August.

MANY GETTING VACCINATED AFTER TRAGEDY

The loss of Govas, "a great guy...always positive," has led to a reckoning among some who were undecided about vaccines, Karigiannis said.

Whether in ball hockey circles or the Greek community, or simply among locals who didn't know him, "I heard... that others who were on the fence or just procrastinating or whatever the reason went and got their appointments," he said.

"I hope it does open people's eyes to the reality of this," he said. "Steve's case may be rare, but it's still a present danger," he added. "If the vaccine is available, no reason to not protect yourself."

Dr. Donald Vinh, a Montreal infectious diseases specialist, says young adults need to know that being healthy or fit will not automatically mean their bodies can fight off the Delta variant, which causes more severe disease and will work its way through the unvaccinated population.

"That mentality of 'Well, I’m young' or 'I’m young and fit, [which] means that I won’t get COVID,' that’s not correct, especially with the Delta variant," he said.

At the McGill University Health Centre alone, in downtown Montreal, there are currently 20 patients admitted with COVID-19, many of whom are relatively young.

"We have a 26-year-old, we have a 31-year-old, we have people in their 30s, we have people in their early-to-mid-40s, which is still a young age group, and those people are profoundly sick," Vinh said.  

Kontogonis said that he's still "in shock" from the news, after seeing Govas look so healthy and "normal" just earlier this month.

He's reconsidering the doubts he had about the vaccine, he said, which mostly had to do with the idea that it wasn't "fully tested yet" or "fully approved," earlier this year.

The vaccines at first had emergency-use authorization, the fastest way to review and approve a drug for use in a crisis, but that's now changed.

In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration gave the Pfizer vaccine full approval in August and now has the complete set of documents submitted by Moderna to get full approval of its vaccine.

In Canada, full approval of both vaccines was given this week.

"Now that it's approved, maybe I'll consider it now," said Kontogonis. "I'm very strongly considering... even my brother's considering taking it too. We're the only ones in my family that haven't taken the vaccine."

-- With files from CTV's Rob Lurie