Vaccine Rollout Brings Hope to Maimonides

Dec. 17, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Every December, Beverly Spanier has organized a Hanukkah party for her friends. That celebration, held in a favourite restaurant or hotel, continued even after she moved into Maimonides Geriatric Centre five years ago.

Planning the party was a project the retired high school teacher worked on for weeks in advance. A paraplegic, she got to the site via the city’s adapted transit service.

That, of course, did not happen this year. Spanier, 75, has not left Maimonides since the pandemic began in March except for three hospital visits. In fact, she has been confined to her room for the past nine months, save for some time in its garden during the summer.

Beverly Spanier
Beverly Spanier

For the first months of the pandemic, all visitors, including paid caregivers on whom Spanier relied, were barred from Maimonides, and remain restricted.

For Spanier, Hanukkah has been limited to looking at the menorah in a municipal park from her fifth-floor window.

When Maimonides was selected as the first site in Montreal for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine rollout, she didn’t hesitate to consent. On the afternoon of Dec. 14, Spanier was among the first of the first in Canada – and indeed the world – to be inoculated.

Maimonides, a long-term care institution in Cote Saint-Luc, and a Quebec City nursing home, Centre d’Hébergement St. Antoine, received the first vaccine shipments to Quebec. The highly anticipated cargo landed at Mirabel Airport north of Montreal on the evening of Dec. 13.

Maimonides took delivery of two boxes of 972 doses each, and 150 residents and staff received their first shot on Dec. 14. Almost 95 percent of Maimonides’s approximately 350 residents have agreed to be inoculated, as have, at time of writing, 40 percent of its roughly 500 employees, according to CIUSSS West-Central Montreal, the regional health authority that administers Maimonides.

Surplus doses from this initial batch will be made available to workers at other health care facilities in the local network.

The day after the first of her two shots, Spanier said she felt fine, with only a little redness at the injection site on her arm. Although she has much faith in medicine – her late brother was a doctor – Spanier was nervous about any adverse reaction and wondered if Maimonides had sufficient medical support on standby should a problem arise.

(CIUSSS officials reassured the public that it does have a trained team in place and precautions, such as a “crash cart,” to treat anaphylactic shock.)

“It is miraculous how the scientists and pharmaceutical industry have been able to produce an effective vaccine in such a short time, but you do worry,” Spanier said. “We are still, in a sense, in the midst of an experiment.”

On balance, she realizes that her risk of catching COVID is far greater than any associated with the vaccine. The consequences for Spanier, who has respiratory issues, could be fatal.

She also has a sense of responsibility toward society. “I think that we all have to do what we can to overcome this terrible disease and allow the world to return to normal.”

The psychological toll of the pandemic has been brutal, she said.

Maimonides has been hard hit by the coronavirus, twice. In the first wave, a third of residents were infected and 39 died, according to government information. It took the assistance of the Canadian Armed Forces and, after that, the Canadian Red Cross to help overwhelmed staff get the outbreak under control.

In early October, Maimonides was proud to announce there were no more active cases. But within weeks, the numbers went from zero to over 50 and, after trying to care for the sick in an isolated ward, transferred many to hospital.

On Dec. 16, Maimonides site coordinator Jennifer Clarke made public that, in the second wave, a total of 88 residents have had COVID and 19 have died. There are currently nine active cases, she reported.

Spanier compares her life to being on a “battleground,” with its fear, disruption and grief.

“We are a community here. I knew some of the people who died, or know someone who knew them,” she said. Her hope today is tinged with solemnity because she can’t forget the havoc the virus wreaked.

Much hoopla surrounded the rollout at Maimonides, with Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé and federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu on hand for a ceremony held outside the building just before the first shot was administered to resident Gloria Lallouz, 78.

The politicians hailed it as a historic occasion. Hajdu, who did not hide her tears, said, “I see this as the first step toward the light.”

Spanier is more cautious. The first battle to be won is ending the pandemic, but the definition of victory in the long term, she believes, is changing society’s disregard for the institutionalized frail elderly.

“If any good has come out of this, it is that light has been shed on what is happening in chronic care places. We can’t just dump people, and the resources have to back that up. One orderly for 35 patients at night is not feasible anymore.”

Editorial: The Smiling Dead

Nov. 11, 2020

Some good news according to recent reports: We are inching closer to a COVID vaccine. Even so, we must remain cognizant of the need for proper masking, handwashing, and social distancing. Places like Singapore, South Korea, New Zealand and others, where citizens followed these simple rules and locked down as necessary, have managed to control this beast.

Future generations will study some responses to the virus and scratch their heads in amazement at humans’ stubborn refusal to follow simple rules. They will wonder whether we had a death wish. They will ask how Americans – to pick on citizens of one country – didn’t immediately shame leaders who publicly suggested witchcraft-type cures, from ingesting bleach to shining sunlight down throats.

Academics will study this time in sheer amazement. Research papers will be written on the phenomenon of humans defying common sense because one man convinced them to follow him over a cliff.

Here in Canada, more sense has prevailed but frighteningly, there are eerie signs that the bullheadedness from our southern neighbours is creeping across the border.

This past weekend in Aylmer, Ont. more than 2,000 people demanded an end to public health regulations. No more social distancing, no more masks. “Freedom!” they cried, while others, like protest conspiracy leader Pastor Henry Hildebrant from the controversial Church of God, wondered, “how many people died? Where? Where is the emergency? There is nothing to back it up. We want our freedom back. We want to live.” Others demanded the right to smile in public.

It will be these people who, when the numbers are counted, will be known as the “smiling dead.”

Welcome Back to Sanity

The elections in the United States have come to a shaky end. Most people felt as though a huge weight was lifted from their shoulders when Joseph R. Biden was proclaimed the 46th president of the United States.

However, along with elation came the sobering reality that more than 70 million people cast a vote for the other ticket, perhaps out of an ongoing sense of disenfranchisement, frustration with an establishment they see as rigged, or just to keep a thumb in the eye of the so-called elites who look down on them.

Many of them may have legitimate grievances but many others voted to give voice to the darker angels of their nature. These millions turned a blind eye to the callousness of an American leader who chose to lie and spread conspiracy theories instead of listening to science. As a result, over 200,000 of Donald Trump’s fellow citizens succumbed to the coronavirus. He could have saved tens of thousands with faster, smarter action. His legacy on this and many other files will stain America for generations.

We welcome back sanity and normalcy (even though Trump, it’s fair to say, will not go away quietly.) Mazal tov to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, the first bi-racial woman to hold the second highest office in the land. And let us not forget the Second Gentleman, Doug Emhoff, the first Jew and the first man to be so named. From strength to strength.

COVID Vaccine Distribution by Early Next Year: Moderna Chief

Oct. 29, 2020

By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL— Moderna Therapeutics’ COVID vaccine should be ready to begin widespread distribution by late winter or next spring, Dr. Tal Zaks, the company’s Chief Medical Officer, said on Oct. 7 in a videoconference hosted by the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Dr. Tal Zaks

Zaks is hopeful that the vaccine will be available in early 2021 for those at high risk, such as front-line workers or the elderly.

“My sense is that by the start of the next school year, things will be back to normal,” Zaks said.

In August, the Canadian government signed a deal with Moderna for 20 million doses to be delivered in 2021. An option for an additional 36 million doses was appended to the agreement last month.

In late July, the Cambridge, Mass.-based biotechnology company became the first in the United States to begin Phase 3 clinical trials of its vaccine candidate. Currently, 30,000 adults are enrolled in the late-stage investigation, conducted in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health.

Zaks, an Israeli oncologist, earned his medical degree and a PhD at Ben-Gurion. Israel has placed orders for the Moderna vaccine, among other countries.

The company expects to produce between 500 million and a billion doses next year, he said, noting that two inoculations would be administered, with a booster shot about a month after the first one.

Zaks said this vaccine has been shown to produce even more antibodies in a person infected with the coronavirus. Some in the trial have experienced mild flu-like symptoms that last a day or two, he said, but no serious side effects have been recorded.

How long immunity will last is not known, he acknowledged, but it should be at least a few years.

New vaccines are developed each year for the seasonal flu because different strains arise, he explained. Mutations have occurred in COVID, but that will not diminish the Moderna vaccine’s effectiveness, he said.

Moderna is currently expanding its trials to ensure the vaccine’s efficacy among children, pregnant women and those who are immune-compromised.

Mark Mendelson, chief executive officer of Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University, said there were nearly 220 registrants for the Zoom webinar, an indication of the high level of interest in the subject – and the pride of the university’s supporters.

In response to questions, Zaks assured that no corners are being cut to rush the vaccine to market. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is “working in lockstep” with Moderna, he said, and has been, in fact, “overly conservative by some measures.” The company published the success of its findings in the New England Journal of Medicine on Sept. 29.

He warned that demand for a vaccine will likely outstrip supply, and countries that are less rich may have trouble meeting their citizens’ needs, at least in the first year. It’s also unclear how the several billion doses he expects to be needed by the end of next year will be deployed around the world, he said.

The Moderna vaccine will cost between US $20-$37 per dose, depending on the volume of purchase, he said.

Asked what keeps him awake at night, Zaks replied, “Our ability to explain our science to a public that is highly fractured in how it gets its information, where venues are polarized. That worries me.

“We are on the cusp of one of the greatest achievements in modern medicine and we find ourselves getting the very strange response of either we are not moving fast enough or ‘I do not believe you.’”