'A generational moment': COVID-19 vaccinations begin in Atlantic Canada

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Doctors, nurses and other front-line health-care workers on Wednesday were the first people in Atlantic Canada to be given the COVID-19 vaccine.

Ellen Foley-Vick, a public health nurse in St. John's, N.L., received the province's first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at Memorial University, in a room full of socially distanced onlookers whose masks could not hide their smiles.

Newfoundland and Labrador's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, administered the symbolic first vaccine and laughed as she put a bandage on Foley-Vick's arm. Premier Andrew Furey was also on hand to witness the first vaccinations, calling the event a "generational moment."

"It's an early Christmas present," Foley-Vick said after she was all patched up. She said the shot didn't hurt a bit and as she stood up from her chair, the room erupted in applause.

For Dr. Jatin Morkar, a clinical chief with the regional health authority, the vaccine brought relief and the hope that families will be able to come together again. He was the second person to be vaccinated Wednesday morning. Premier Furey said Morkar was one of the first in the province to step forward to treat COVID-19 patients.

Morkar told reporters he quarantined himself in his basement, connecting with family and friends only through Skype and Zoom calls. "One of the worst things I experienced was … having sick patients whose families were not able to visit them," he said. "The grief that went with that is something I don’t think I’ll ever recover from."

In Nova Scotia, Danielle Sheaves, a nurse who works in a COVID unit at the Halifax Infirmary, was the first recipient in her province of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. In a video released by the government on Wednesday, Sheaves said it felt good to get vaccinated. "I was honoured to be asked to be the first person to get the vaccine this morning."

Sheaves said she was excited at the prospect of getting a shot. "It's good that we are getting the vaccine, I think that this is one of the only ways that we are going to get back to some semblance of a normal life."

The first shots in Nova Scotia were destined for 350 front-line health workers in Halifax and will be administered at a clinic close to the Dalhousie University campus, where the province's first shipment of the vaccine is being stored.

"It was very uneventful," chuckled emergency department nurse Haley Avery in an interview about five minutes after she received her shot. The 38-year-old, nine-year nursing veteran said she was "excited and grateful" she was able to get vaccinated.

"There is certainly an element of trying to set a good example," Avery said. "I think it's fantastic that there are so many health-care workers who with very little thought, have stepped up to get the immunization because they know it is the right thing to do."

Another vaccine recipient, Dr. Stephen Miller, an emergency department doctor and an associate dean at Dalhousie's faculty of medicine, said his morning drive to work felt a little different. "The last nine months have been a little doom and gloom," Miller said. "Everything took on a bit of a different light today, it was kind of exciting."

Miller, 53, said he is "confident and comfortable" getting vaccinated and said he believes the public should be as well. "It was a painless shot and I so far have felt excellent."

In Charlottetown, a physician, a resident-care worker and a registered nurse were among the first people vaccinated on Prince Edward Island. Dr. Chris Lantz said he felt like a 10-year-old boy on Christmas morning after receiving his first shot.

"We've been on the defensive for so long," Lantz told reporters gathered at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. "It feels so good now to be on the offensive. We're not retreating against the virus, we're taking it to it now."

Registered nurse Debbie Lawless said she felt "ecstatic." She said the pandemic has made life difficult for Islanders, adding that she has a mother in a nursing home in Nova Scotia that she has not been able to see.

"I'm hoping that everyone is this excited and are registered to get it done so we can move forward and have life back to a normal pace again," Lawless said.

Dr. Heather Morrison, the province's chief medical officer of health, said a few hundred people would be vaccinated each day until Saturday. P.E.I. received 1,950 doses of the vaccine in its first shipment. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine requires two doses per patient to be fully effective.

New Brunswick, meanwhile, is scheduled to hold its first COVID-19 vaccination clinic at the Miramichi Regional Hospital this weekend.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2020.

— By Sarah Smellie in St. John's, Keith Doucette in Halifax and Kevin Bissett in Fredericton.

Sarah Smellie and Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press