Vaccine confusion: Pregnant woman in Montreal refused a shot even though she was eligible

When Leah received a letter in March telling her she could be part of the city’s vaccination pilot project because her toddler’s daycare was in a high-risk neighbourhood, she immediately called her obstetrician-gynecologist to ask if it was okay for a pregnant woman to get the shot.

She also did her research herself and called some friends who are MDs. "They all said if you can get it, you absolutely should get it," she said.

Leah, who asked CTV News not to use her last name because she’s still keeping her pregnancy news private, immediately booked an appointment online as directed by Montreal Public Health.

She clicked the box that asked if she was pregnant, and for good measure, noted in a comment box that she was 14 weeks along.

On March 29, the day of her appointment, everything went well at the Maimonides vaccination site, but the process grounded to a halt when she confirmed she was pregnant.

According to her, the staff member said, "Well you can’t get vaccinated then, it’s Quebec policy not to vaccinate pregnant women. This is an experimental vaccine, research hasn’t been done and you’re not able to get it." 

"I was completely shocked," said Leah.

The employee was very firm, said Leah, and so she decided not to argue even though she wanted the protection the vaccine would afford at a time when public health was trying to stamp out cases of the variants.

She was also perplexed because the medical specialists she’d consulted in Montreal had all told her getting the vaccine was a smart move.

"I felt completely deflated and felt like I was put at even greater risk from showing up to this appointment after being mostly isolated for the last year," she said.

While the health ministry’s vaccination guidelines for pregnant women are somewhat convoluted, a key phrase in a statement sent to CTV by a ministry spokesperson is unambiguous.

"Quebec’s Immunization Committee (QIC) considers that vaccination can be offered to a pregnant woman, especially if she is at risk of serious complications from COVID-19 or if she is at high risk of exposure to the virus," it reads.

This is exactly why Leah was there in the first place — her high risk of exposure.

NO RESOLUTION

On Thursday afternoon, CTV contacted the West-Central Montreal CIUSSS that operates the Maimonides vaccination site, to share Leah’s story, and with Leah's permission, to send them all the supporting documents they requested.

CTV then asked the regional health authority why she was refused a vaccine at the pilot project vaccination site on March 29, when being pregnant does not disqualify a woman from getting a vaccine in Quebec when it’s her turn.

THe CIUSSS did not respond at press time, but Leah said she received an email Friday morning from the CIUSSS "simply asking if I was able to go get my vaccine today."

In the emails that Leah forwarded to CTV, she responded she had a full workday today but could go next week. The individual replied in full, "you can go after work - or Sunday."

So, Leah said she will just have to wait until her age group is eligible to get her shot, adding that when she initially shared her experience she "certainly wasn't expecting to be re-offered the vaccine, but was surprised at the lack of acknowledgment [by the CIUSSS] and the take-it-or-leave-it" approach to just make one of two days work.

The busy, pregnant mother says she realizes she's been given another opportunity to receive the vaccine, but the circumstances and communication "feel disingenuous and as if I was responsible for being refused my shot."

She hopes the messaging for pregnant women becomes consistent at vaccine sites and properly reflects Quebec's vaccination policy.

Providing proper information about vaccinations has never been more urgent as obstetrician-gynecologists across Canada are closely watching one province in particular as the situation there deteriorates.

On Thursday, due to an increase in the number of severe cases of COVID-19 among pregnant women in Ontario, the Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (SOGC) issued an urgent recommendation that Ontario and all provinces immediately prioritize vaccination for women who are more than 20 weeks pregnant.

The SOGC has released a statement regarding the alarming situation with pregnant woman with COVID-19 in ICU in Ontario. Read the statement here: https://t.co/llAZHbxGY8

— SOGC (@SOGCorg) April 15, 2021

“There is currently a wave of pregnant women coming into Ontario ICUs, many requiring ventilators. These women are getting extremely sick, very quickly,” the SOGC also tweeted.

AT RISK BUT NOT A PRIORITY GROUP

Quebec has decided so far not to prioritize pregnant women for vaccination, and that has sparked anger among some expectant mothers. 

They say not only does that leave them unprotected in the thick of a third wave, but it contradicts the government’s own messaging.

"I would get vaccinated immediately if I had the option," said "Ann" in an interview with CTV. She requested her last name not to be published because she’s just 12 weeks pregnant and also hasn’t yet announced the happy news to her inner circle.

Specialists interviewed by CTV emphasize the benefits of vaccination for pregnant women outweigh the theoretical risks since pregnant women with COVID-19 can face some serious health concerns.

But right now, according to Quebec's health ministry, "pregnant women who wish to be vaccinated can be vaccinated at the same time as women of the same age or in their priority group."

What's more, QIC scientists advised the government that pregnant women "are at greater risk of complications from COVID-19 than women of the same age who are not pregnant," according to the same health ministry statement.

Since she’s much younger than 55, not an essential worker, and has no chronic illnesses, Ann will have to wait for her age group to be deemed eligible.

"It doesn't make sense that Quebec, which typically strongly supports mothers and families, has left us off the priority list," she said.

Ann is already a parent to one child who is in daycare while she works and who could bring the virus home to her.

"We have minimized all other sources of risky exposure to the family, but I worry about it every day," she said.

“The impacts on a family of a pregnant mother ending up hospitalized, on a ventilator, or worse, would be immeasurable," said Ann.

Leah has had similar concerns. "I think that as soon as you categorize a group of people as high risk you need to treat them as high risk."

QUEBEC’S POSITION ON PREGNANCY AND VACCINES

The health ministry bases its decisions on the advice of its scientist-advisors, a spokesperson told CTV in an email, and its positions could evolve based on new evidence.

However, a spokesperson from Quebec’s public health institute (INSPQ) explained in an email that while its immunization committee has proposed general priority categories to the government, it’s the government that selects the types of conditions that fit into any particular priority group.

Right now, the QIC’s recommendations are in line with those of the SOGC and that advice has been adopted by the province.

it also added that, "Quebec’s Immunization Committee (QIC) considers that vaccination can be offered to a pregnant woman, especially if she is at risk of serious complications from COVID-19 or if she is at high risk of exposure to the virus."

It’s suggested that women talk to a doctor about the pros and cons of vaccination, their personal risks, "the theoretical risks of vaccination in pregnant women, and the potential benefits of vaccination."

However, women do not require a prescription to be vaccinated.

As for breastfeeding women, the QIC reports "there are no known risks associated with the use of an inactivated vaccine in breastfeeding women," and that women do not have to stop breastfeeding for any length of time after getting the shot.

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