Mass vaccination campaign launches in Montreal with snags, frustration and joy

·6 min read
Mass vaccination campaign launches in Montreal with snags, frustration and joy
The Olympic Stadium may not get much use these days in Montreal, but it was certainly busy on Monday as hundreds of seniors showed up to get a dose of a vaccine that could save their lives. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
The Olympic Stadium may not get much use these days in Montreal, but it was certainly busy on Monday as hundreds of seniors showed up to get a dose of a vaccine that could save their lives. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Jean Holden Szymucha arrived only 30 minutes before her vaccination appointment on Monday, but the 91-year-old ended up waiting for her shot much longer than she expected.

She summed her feelings up in one word, clearly heard over the roaring chatter of the crowd behind her in Montreal's Olympic Stadium: "Ridiculous!"

Szymucha, using a wheelchair to get around, waited two and a half hours because, she said, there were "too many people at once."

She was even reconsidering getting a second shot, but health officials insist that such hiccups were to be expected on the first day as about 15 vaccination sites opened across the city.

"We are in constant improvement of the process," said Julie Provencher, director of youth and public health services at CIUSSS de l'Est-de-l'Île-de-Montréal.

The agency sent out a statement Monday, reminding people to show up on time to avoid the wait. Some were showing up 90 minutes early.

Once the kinks are worked out of the system, up to 3,000 people per day will be vaccinated at the stadium.

WATCH | Here's what it was like at the Olympic Stadium Monday:

Online and phone registration began last week for those in Montreal aged 85 and older to book appointments to get their vaccines.

Now, all of Quebec's regions are booking appointments for people over 85. And in Montreal and Laval — areas deemed by the province as a priority for vaccinations — the minimum age to be eligible for an appointment has been lowered to 70.

Palais des congrès deals with early birds

At the Palais des congrès downtown, the operation got underway a bit behind schedule.

"We weren't quite ready. We had a few small computer hitches. But now it's going well and we think it's going to be more and more efficient and people will have less waiting," said Francine Dupuis, deputy CEO of the CIUSSS du Center-Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal.

But people need to stop showing up too early, she said.

"There's no point in waiting in line," Dupuis said. "They're going to be vaccinated anyway. And that's less waiting, especially for people who have walkers or wheelchairs."

 Julie Provencher, director of youth and public health services at CIUSSS de l'est de l'ile de Montreal, speaks with her 13-year-old daughter who volunteered to help out on Monday.
Julie Provencher, director of youth and public health services at CIUSSS de l'est de l'ile de Montreal, speaks with her 13-year-old daughter who volunteered to help out on Monday.

Up to 3,000 shots will be administered daily at the Palais once it's fully operational.

While the setbacks may be discouraging, health officials say it's worth the trouble.

"The more we vaccinate, the better our chances are for reducing outbreaks and the number of cases — and for saving lives," Ginette Senez, a director at the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l'Île-de-Montréal.

'They make you feel very comfortable'

Rosa Shields, 71, got her vaccine on Friday along with her 95-year-old mother in Montréal-Nord. As a primary caregiver over 70 years old, she was already eligible to book an appointment.

"I was really ecstatic, like wow. I was really, really happy about it," Shields said on CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

Her concerns about going to a shopping centre, instead of a clinic, to get their shots quickly subsided when she was warmly greeted and workers ensured clients maintained physical distance from each other.

"They make you feel very comfortable," she said. "It wasn't as if you were all packed in like sardines."

LOOK | Click through photo gallery of scenes from vaccinations sites:

She said it took about an hour for the whole process to be completed. And with the vaccine came a feeling of relief — and the best night's sleep she'd had in a long time.

"It was very, very emotional," said Shields, looking back on nearly a year of isolation and seeing people she knew dying from the disease.

"Even as he was giving it to me, I felt like something had been lifted."

Decarie Square site hits snags

Elie Gross got her shot Monday at Decarie Square in Montreal's west end. She sees the vaccine as more than just an inoculation — it's a chance to be with her family once again.

"I know that in three months," said Gross. "I can make a wedding of my granddaughter, and maybe the birth of a second great-grandchild."

But while most people are happy with the result, getting the jab was not without frustration at the makeshift vaccination site.

"I had an appointment at 10 o'clock and I'm way down at the end of the line," said Ernest Burman, who was one of many people complaining about some waits as long as an hour.

Crowds of people waited for their COVID-19 vaccinations at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal on Monday. It was one of about 15 sites that are now open to the public in the city.
Crowds of people waited for their COVID-19 vaccinations at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal on Monday. It was one of about 15 sites that are now open to the public in the city.

Staff scrambled to provide chairs to those who were waiting, helping those who could not stand for such long stretches.

Dupuis said staff are working to get things running smoothly.

"I went along the line and I said, 'I'm so sorry. It's the first day. It's a little slower. But you're going to get there. You're going to get vaccinated.'"

Dupuis said there's a lot involved in setting up these vaccination sites, including the training of staff and volunteers.

"It's very complex. There are a lot of logistics. We have to train these people. We have to show them the computer system," she said.

Decarie Square is expected to administer about 1,200 vaccinations per day once the operation gets up and running smoothly.

Aiming to vaccinate up to 600,000 per week

More vaccination sites are due to open later this month as the province aims to boost the turnout to more than half a million people per week.

"Currently, we are running roughly 100,000 vaccines per week," said Daniel Paré, director of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign.

"But we are in the process of developing our capacity for 500,000 or 600,000 per week."

While some who experienced the long waits Monday might think that's a bit of a lofty goal, there weren't bottlenecks at every location.

At Patro Villeray, a recreational centre not far from the Jean-Talon hospital, there was hardly any wait.

"The faster it is, the better it is for everyone," said Cera Tofan, a nursing student who helped vaccinate people at the rec centre.

"We want to gain that much-desired collective immunity."

The opening of mass vaccination centres in Montreal comes just over a year since the first known case of COVID-19 was detected in the city.

To reserve an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine, you can go on the online portal quebec.ca/covidvaccine or call 1-877-644-4545.