Montreal's Olympic Stadium opens to long lines as Canada plays catch-up on jabs

Allison Lampert
·3 min read
FILE PHOTO: Seniors begin vaccination in Laval Quebec

By Allison Lampert

MONTREAL (Reuters) - As COVID-19 vaccinations ramp-up in Canada, one of the country's largest stadiums is taking in a long line of elderly, while provinces enlist dentists, midwives and chiropractors to help meet the expected rush for jabs.

A slow rollout of vaccines has recently dented Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's popularity, with the lack of domestic production being blamed for Canada trailing many other developed nations in its vaccination drive.

Montreal's cavernous Olympic Stadium, which once hosted young athletes during the 1976 summer games, on Monday saw thousands of octogenarians donning folding chairs and canes as they waited in a snaking line for jabs.

Tony Caccese said he had already waited more than an hour to get his 85-year-old mother vaccinated, as the two faced a longer line-up than during the Montreal summer games he attended as an 18-year-old.

"I've been to many baseball games, football games, soccer games, concerts, and I've never waited this long in a line-up," Caccese said.

About 3,000 are expected to be inoculated on Monday at the stadium nicknamed the Big O, which was equipped with wheelchairs and golf carts to help those unable to walk, organizers said.

"There are people who are coming out of their home for the first time since the start of the pandemic," said Caroline St-Denis, director of the vaccination campaign at the stadium.

Canada's vaccine supplies are expected to get a boost after health regulator on Friday approved AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine, becoming the third shot to be available to Canadians.

That will help as provinces begin targeting elderly residents beyond those living at the long-term care facilities which accounted for the majority of COVID-19 deaths during the first wave.

With less than 4% of the population inoculated so far, the pace of Canada's slow campaign has caused frustration, resulting in at least two senior corporate executives resigning for trying to jump the vaccine queue.

"We are going to have everyone vaccinated probably by the end of the summer," Trudeau told NBC News's Meet the Press on Sunday.

OVERWHELMED

In Manitoba, which plans to enlist chiropractors, massage therapists and optometrists, more than 300 dentists, or about 40% of registered dentists in the province, have joined the vaccination effort, said Dr. Marc Mollot, past president of the Manitoba Dental Association.

The western province of Alberta has started using pharmacies to administer vaccines to people aged 75 and over, but the province's health services website initially crashed after more than 150,000 people logged on.

"It's been 10 long months in this pandemic, people’s nerves are worn raw by nearly a year of restrictions, a year of uncertainty, frustration, stress and anxiety," Alberta health minister Tyler Shandro told reporters last week.

While the country's most populous province Ontario will not launch a centralized booking system until March 15, some public health units have already started booking elderly patients.

Quebec's campaign at the stadium gets underway during the province's spring break, amid fears that a variant of the novel coronavirus could spread during the holiday.

The Quebec government is wrestling with plans to bring elderly residents to inoculation sites like the stadium since the Pfizer vaccine's cold storage requirements make it impossible to transport the vaccine to individual homes.

Quebec has also reached agreements with pharmacists and businesses to expand inoculations in the coming months.

British Columbia said on Monday that seniors over 80 and indigenous people over 65 would be able to book appointments for vaccinations in the coming weeks. The province issued orders last week allowing health care workers like dentists and midwives to administer vaccines.

"Vaccines are our ticket out of the pandemic," Alberta health minister Shandro said.

(Reporting By Allison Lampert and Christinne Muschi in Montreal. Additional reporting by Nia Williams in Calgary, Rod Nickel in Manitoba, Moira Warburton and Allison Martell in Toronto; Editing by Denny Thomas and Nick Zieminski)