As cases of coronavirus variants continue to rise in Montreal, the city will remain the focus of Quebec's mass vaccination campaign.
At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Health Minister Christian Dubé said vaccines are the province's best tool in preventing a variant, first detected in the United Kingdom and believed to be more contagious, from taking hold elsewhere in the province.
He said the plateau of new cases seen across Quebec could be the "calm before the storm," if the growing number of variant cases detected in Montreal is any indication.
Last week, variants accounted for about 10 per cent of new cases in Montreal. Now, they're hovering at around 12 to 15 per cent.
Dubé announced that eligible Quebecers will soon be able to book appointments to get a vaccine from their local pharmacy. Starting the week of March 15, he said as many as 350 pharmacies in Montreal will be taking appointments.
The province has reached an agreement with about 1,400 pharmacists across the province to administer vaccines — with the goal of 2 million doses given by the end of July in pharmacies.
"[Pharmacists] are very close to their patients and the level of trust is there," said Nirvishi Jawaheer, the owner of a pharmacy in Parc-Extension and vice-president of the Fédération des Pharmaciens du Québec.
"We are very accessible, we're open long hours and we have the competency for taking care of patients."
The federation says the vaccines will be offered free of charge.
"We must be prudent of these variants," said Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province's director of public health. He said more infectious variants, such as the B.1.1.7 strain, could cause a new spike infections.
Arruda says they are paying close attention to the spread of variants as they decide whether to loosen COVID-19 restrictions. An update on the province's bans on gatherings and other activities is expected Wednesday afternoon.
Lessons learned from Day 1 of mass vaccinations
Daniel Paré, who is in charge of Quebec's vaccination campaign, said much was learned on Monday, when more than 16,000 vaccines were administered — many at mass vaccination sites including Montreal's Olympic Stadium, the Palais des congrès and shopping malls.
"We are really pleased that people accept to be vaccinated," Paré said. He said the government is working on increasing the capacity of its phone system and encouraged Quebecers to book appointments online or have a family member help them do so.
He also said that more chairs are being provided today for the elderly people waiting in line and that additional staff are being deployed to answer questions when people arrive for their appointment.
Dubé asked Quebecers to show up only five to 10 minutes before their appointment, accompanied by a maximum of one caregiver, to reduce the number of people waiting in line at one time.
In Montreal and Laval, those aged 70 and older can now book an appointment to get their shot. As the province receives more vaccines, Paré said more appointment slots will open up.
In the Montérégie, just south of Montreal, vaccines are only available to those aged 80 and older. But the priority, Dubé said, is completing vaccinations at the many private seniors' homes in that region before making the shot available to those under 80.