TORONTO — A long-term care resident in Quebec and a nursing home worker in Ontario received Canada’s first COVID-19 vaccinations on Monday, kicking off the largest immunization campaign in the country’s history.
The shots from drug company Pfizer were administered in Quebec City and Toronto within roughly half an hour of each other, creating some confusion about which of the two hard-hit provinces could lay claim to being the first in the country to hand out doses.
Canadians watched as Anita Quidangen, a personal support worker, received her shot in Toronto on live television around noon eastern time. Moments later, Ontario’s premier proclaimed her as “the first person in Ontario and Canada” to receive the vaccine.
Quidangen, who has worked at the Rekai Centre nursing home in the city for years, said she was excited to get the shot.
“It’s an honour, thank you very much,” she said. “I’ll continue to do my job as a PSW.”
Shortly after, however, Quebec announced that a long-term care resident in that province’s capital had been injected with the vaccine at 11:25 ET, making her the first in Canada to get immunized.
Deputy premier Genevieve Guilbault described 89-year-old Gisele Levesque as “not only the first Quebecer but the first Canadian” to receive the vaccine.
Leaders in both provinces said the rollout of the shots marked a historic day.
“What we witnessed today is a massive step forward in the fight against this deadly virus,” said Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
“Make no mistake, there is a long road ahead of us, but what this represents is hope and proof that this pandemic will come to an end.”
Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube said it was “a very, very big day” for the province.
Levesque’s nieces said in a statement Sunday their aunt was calm and direct about being No. 1 on the list. Levesque said “I was chosen, of course,” her nieces recalled.
Quebec officials said they would be vaccinating residents and staff at Levesque’s long-term care home, and at the Maimonides Geriatric Centre. The remaining doses will go to other health-care workers.
Gloria Lallouz, a resident of the Montreal geriatric centre, said she felt “fabulous” after receiving the vaccine.
“We’re not going to be able to live properly until everybody gets a vaccination,” Lallouz said.
In Ontario, four other long-term care workers were vaccinated after Quidangen.
Derek Thompson, another personal support worker who received the vaccine in Toronto, said it felt just like getting a flu shot.
“What happens next? We continue on, we continue the fight,” he said. “It’s an honour, there was a lot of people they could have picked, but we were the ones they picked.”
While Ontario and Quebec handed out their first doses, other provinces put the finishing touches on their plans.
In Atlantic Canada, the arrival of the vaccine was in flux.
Health officials in Newfoundland and Labrador are expected to see doses in the next couple of days, while New Brunswick planned to begin administering up to 1,950 shots at the Miramichi Regional Hospital this weekend. Nova Scotia and P.E.I. health officials promised more details soon.
Alberta reported a new daily high of 1,887 COVID-19 cases on Monday and 15 more deaths. Health Minister Tyler Shandro said officials expect the delivery of 3,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine Tuesday.
“These next few weeks are going to be the toughest yet, but relief is on the way, and it’s starting this week,” Shandro said.
In neighbouring Saskatchewan, the government announced new restrictions while it waited to give its first vaccinations.
Premier Scott Moe said starting Thursday, only immediate household members can gather inside the same home.
“This needs to be a much quieter Christmas,” Moe said.
Manitoba has been under tight restrictions for some time now and rates there have been trending down.
The provincial government recently set up a telephone line to register health-care workers for vaccine appointments starting Wednesday.
But the phone number got out to the general public on the weekend, and more than 100,000 calls flooded in. Some people were dishonest in answering automated screening questions, and were later sent away by live operators in charge of booking appointments, said chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin.
In British Columbia, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the first doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be administered Tuesday to workers in long-term care facilities in the Lower Mainland.
“I can’t tell you how exciting this is, to know that this start of this new phase to protect people is beginning here in B.C. and Canada,” she said.
But Henry also expressed concern that people might let their guards down with the arrival of the vaccine.
“My biggest fear right now is that we’re not going to do enough, we’re going to let off right now and people are unnecessarily going to be exposed and some of them will get very ill, will end up in our hospitals or end up dying at this point when we are so, so close,” she told a news conference.
The Pfizer vaccine is the only COVID-19 vaccine approved in Canada so far.
Anita Anand, the federal procurement minister, said Canada is still finalizing how many doses of Pfizer’s vaccine will arrive in Canada and when. She said she expects about 30,000 doses to arrive this week and the same number next week.
The government has said just under 250,000 doses will arrive by the end of the year, which would mean a big boost in the supply arriving in the last week of December.
Kevin Smith, president of the University Health Network, which administered the Toronto vaccines, said the shots mark a victory for science.
“Today, really, we turned the corner,” Smith said. “I like to say this is the shot that will be heard around the world.”
— With files from John Chidley-Hill, Mike Blanchfield, Jillian Kestler-D’Amours, Jacob Serebrin, Steve Lambert, Stephanie Taylor and Dean Bennett.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 14, 2020.
Shawn Jeffords, The Canadian Press