Starting Friday, Quebecers in their 50s can begin making appointments to receive a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and soon after, the rest of the adult population will be able to do so as well.
All adults in the province will soon be able to book an appointment at a vaccine clinic through Clic Santé, the province's online portal, in the coming days and weeks.
Vaccines had previously been reserved for priority groups more vulnerable to the virus. With 2.5 million vaccine doses scheduled to arrive by the end of May, Quebec is now in a position to dramatically increase its vaccination rate.
"It's a big day for Quebec," Health Minister Christian Dubé said at a news conference Thursday. "The sky is starting to clear and we're seeing rays of sunshine."
This is when appointment slots will be available (the schedule is based on age, not year of birth):
April 30 - age 50 to 59.
May 3 - age 45 to 49.
May 5 - age 40 to 44.
May 7 - age 35 to 39.
May 10 - age 30 to 34.
May 12 - age 25 to 29.
May 14 - age 18 to 24.
In this next phase of the vaccination campaign, businesses and pharmacies will be called on to play a supporting role, alongside the large clinics that have been set up in such places as the Olympic Stadium and the Palais des congrès.
Provincial officials also said they were exploring extending the opening hours of vaccine clinics, especially on weekends, and they expect to announce a drive-thru clinic project next week.
"When we get to the younger ages, we'll want to have different types of accessibility," said Daniel Paré, who is in charge of the vaccination program.
Around 12,000 people have been trained and are ready to administer the vaccines. The province's goal is to see 75 per cent of the adult population receive at least a first dose by June 24.
"There is now no doubt. We will meet our goal for the 24th of June," Dubé said.
The vaccines are coming
Most of the new vaccines slated to arrive in Quebec are from Pfizer-BioNTech. That vaccine requires a person to have two doses to be considered fully vaccinated.
There is also more vaccine due to arrive from Moderna as well as Johnson & Johnson, which only requires a single dose.
Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province's public health director, said the remaining AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine will be available to those aged 45 and over — and it will be clearly identified on Clic Santé.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine will also likely be available to the same cohort, Arruda said, noting the provincial vaccine advisory body has yet to issue recommendations about its use.
Quebecers under the age of 18 will have to wait longer for details about when they can receive a vaccine. Arruda suggested that teenagers could be vaccinated through their schools.
Quebec's experts also haven't approved the Pfizer vaccine for those between the ages of 16 and 18.
What happens next?
The prospect of greater numbers of Quebecers having some form of protection from COVID-19 raises questions about when public health restrictions can be lifted.
In releasing its latest projections, Quebec's public health institute, the INSPQ, said Thursday the increase in vaccines administered next month is likely to play a major role curbing the number of infections and hospitalizations.
But the INSPQ also cautioned that public health measures were still necessary in the interim to avoid a surge in cases. The health minister echoed that point during the news conference.
"We're looking forward to talking about lifting restrictions but it's still too early to finalize those plans," Dubé said.
Arruda added there was no "magic number." He said the decision will be based on several factors, not just vaccine coverage.
They also pointed out that infection rates remain high in some areas of the province. Thursday's news conference began with Dubé announcing added lockdown measures for the Lower Saint-Lawrence region, which includes Rivière-du-Loup and Rimouski.
"I'm touching wood. Case are dropping. Hospitalizations are dropping. But we want to remain cautious because the fire is still there," Dubé said, adding the province is still averaging around 1,000 new cases per day.