Partially vaccinated ER staff at Montreal's St. Mary's Hospital hit with COVID-19 outbreak

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St-Mary's Hospital in Montreal was the site of a COVID-19 outbreak among staff this week, though many of those infected haven't had symptoms. (Dave St-Amant/CBC - image credit)
St-Mary's Hospital in Montreal was the site of a COVID-19 outbreak among staff this week, though many of those infected haven't had symptoms. (Dave St-Amant/CBC - image credit)

The emergency department at St. Mary's Hospital in Montreal's Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood has been hit with a COVID-19 outbreak affecting 14 staff members, despite most of them having received a first vaccine dose.

The local health board, the CIUSSS de l'Ouest-de-l'Île-de-Montréal, has confirmed the outbreak and says the staff members who tested positive were sent home to self-isolate. Most have exhibited no symptoms, while some have exhibited mild symptoms.

Hélène Bergeron-Gamache, a spokesperson for the health board, said the hospital responded by increasing infection control measures, but that it doesn't anticipate any reduction in services.

No patients contracted the virus via the outbreak, Bergeron-Gamache said.

It is unclear how the outbreak was first identified, but around 100 staff members were tested in the emergency department.

"In particular, we screened students, respiratory therapists and housekeeping staff," said Bergeron-Gamache in an email to CBC.

Most of the staff who tested positive had already received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and were expecting to receive their second dose this week, said a hospital source, who was not authorized to speak on the matter.

The staff had initially been told they would receive their second dose 84 days after their first, but that was later revised to 112 days.

Second vaccine dose delayed

The outbreak has raised questions about whether it was wise for the province to delay second doses of the vaccine, particularly for frontline health-care workers.

It is especially important to maximize their protection against infection, said Benoit Barbeau, a virologist and professor in the department of biological sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal, because "not only will they be exposed to the virus, but then they'll be potentially contagious."

In order to maximize the number of vaccines it had, Quebec focused on getting as many first doses into as many people as possible who were at increased risk of hospitalization or death.

Quebec public health recommended a 16-week interval between the two doses.

Most health-care workers at St. Mary's Hospital just got a second dose or are scheduled to get it this month.

Although this is the first outbreak he's heard about recently that is linked to health-care workers in a hospital setting, it is not entirely unexpected, said Barbeau.

Studies show the vaccine offers significant protection after one dose — on average about 80 per cent. But partial vaccination is just that, it does not provide total protection from being infected, said Barbeau.

"What we hope for is that those symptoms are milder than what might have happened if they wouldn't have received a vaccine," he said. "So the vaccine protects against severe symptoms for sure."

Vaccinated or not, employees are always encouraged to get tested for COVID-19 frequently, says the regional health authority that oversees St. Mary's. To promote access to screening, the hospital has set up mobile screening clinics.

About two-thirds of health-care workers across the system have received one vaccine dose. According to the Ministry of Health and Social Services, 4,277 workers had received a second dose as of April 27th. That's about seven per cent of health-care workers.