Montreal vaccination sites empty as Quebec reroutes doses to other regions

If any Montrealers noticed a mass vaccination site lying nearly empty this week, it was one of many.

But the province says it’s temporary: it intentionally slowed down the pace in Montreal in order to let other regions catch up.

Sites in Montreal that were bustling just last week saw their lineups shrink to zero this week. Online, appointment slots were wide open.

At Décarie Square on Thursday, at 1 p.m., “there was literally not a single person in the vicinity,” said Liz Ulin, a councillor in Montreal West, who stopped by at that time.

The site is one of the bigger ones, but “there was nobody in line, nobody getting a shot… there were six security guards milling around with nothing to do,” she said.

There were similar reports from other sites, including the downtown convention centre.

For Ulin, when she saw the empty site, “it made me upset,” she said.

“They're fully stocked with vaccines at all of these places… yet nobody’s being vaccinated,” she said.

“Meanwhile, there’s teachers that are clamouring to be vaccinated, there's people 55 and up clamouring to be vaccinated,” not to mention all the other age groups and people with underlying conditions.

“And there's basically these huge centres sitting around.”

Why the sudden slowdown? Essentially, it’s because the province has delayed opening up eligibility to the next group of Montrealers—it’s been almost two weeks since the eligibility last changed.

PROVINCE REROUTED 27,000 DOSES AWAY FROM MONTREAL

At the same time, the health ministry decided to even things up across Quebec this week, redistributing almost 30,000 doses intended for Montreal to other regions, it said in a statement to CTV.

“In order to make good use of the vaccines at its disposal, the [health ministry] decided this week to reallocate 27,000 doses of vaccine that were initially planned for the Montreal region,” wrote spokesperson Robert Maranda on Friday.

“These doses will be distributed in areas where vaccination coverage is lower. The [ministry] is closely monitoring the situation.”

Montreal opened up eligibility to people aged 60 to 65 nearly two weeks ago, on March 22, which will be two weeks ago as of Monday.

By this point, “a large proportion of this population is vaccinated or awaiting an appointment, so it is normal that interest in making an appointment is waning,” wrote Maranda.

“The appointments will eventually be open to new priority groups, so that all appointments can be filled,” he wrote.

The province gave at least some Montreal authorities advance notice of its decision to divert shipments.

Barry Morgan, the spokesperson for the city's Centre-West health authority, told CTV that the move was communicated ahead of time to give Montreal authorities a chance to reshuffle staff if needed.

He didn't say how or if they'd adjusted according to the change.

LEGAULT HINTED AT PROVINCE'S LOGIC

Quebec has named four regions, not including Montreal, as especially worrisome in the third wave. They were put back into red-zone status this week after their COVID-19 cases suddenly started to rise.

However, Premier François Legault made a comment well before that, at his daily press conference on March 22, that hinted that the province might geographically balance the coverage as its next step.

When asked who would next be eligible in Montreal, and when, he responded that the rest of the province needed more attention before further plans were made for Montreal.

“Today we announced that we’ll vaccinate... 60 years or more in Montreal,” he said.

“But we have to do that in all regions. After that, will we go to 55 or to 50? I don't know at this time.”

The province never responded to a request from CTV that day to clarify if he meant that all Quebecers over 60 would need to get a shot before Montreal could move on to the next eligibility category.

The next step for the province is also a big one, and controversial: after the people over 60 are vaccinated, eligibility opens up to younger people with pre-existing health conditions, but the province hasn’t yet decided or announced exactly which groups will go first.

A week and a half ago, authorities said that list would be coming “shortly” but they haven’t mentioned it since. 

NEARLY 60 PER CENT OF 60-64 GROUP VACCINATED IN MONTREAL

To make matters more confusing to Montrealers, there aren’t readily available statistics showing vaccination progress for the city, making it unclear if a lot of eligible people over 60 are simply not taking advantage of the slots.

Ulin, who is 61 and already got her first shot, said anecdotally it seems as if people have jumped at their chance—everyone she knows in her age group has been vaccinated. 

But the only statistics available to the public show that just 23 per cent of Quebecers aged 60 to 69 have already been vaccinated.

Those stats, however, cover the entire province. 

Montreal-specific numbers are available by request only, to media. The most recent ones, provided to The Globe and Mail on Thursday, showed that in Montreal, 59 per cent of 60- to 64-year-olds had gotten a dose, while for those 65 to 69, it was 70 per cent.

The numbers continue to go up by age group, to 85 per cent coverage for those over 80.

Montreal’s public health department didn’t respond to a request from CTV on Friday for updated statistics.

Ulin said, aside from those who are desperate for a first dose, it was also disheartening to see nurses and other health-care staff sitting unoccupied at vaccination clinics when the system is so stretched.

But the decision to release the doses lies with the province, not the local health district, she said.

“There are still tremendous numbers of people who want to be vaccinated and, frankly, should be,” she said.

“They can't make a move until the government changes the criteria.”

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