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Nicole Picard receives a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine from pharmacist Nabil Chikh on March 22, 2021, in Montreal.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec lowered the COVID-19 vaccine eligibility age in Montreal to those 60 and up as pharmacies in the city began administering shots Monday in the city.

Health authorities announced the change for the Montreal region late Sunday while keeping the age limit at 65 and older for the rest of the province. Meanwhile, about 350 pharmacies joined the province’s mass vaccination campaign, inoculating those 65 and older by appointment.

The latest vaccination developments come as Quebec reported 712 new COVID-19 cases and 15 additional deaths linked to the novel coronavirus, including three in the previous 24 hours.

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Provincial health authorities also saw a jump in hospitalizations and intensive care cases, with a dozen more cases in each category for a total of 513 patients in hospital and 114 requiring intensive care. There are 6,755 active COVID-19 cases in the province.

“We are monitoring the situation closely, especially the progression of variants, which is worrying,” Health Minister Christian Dube wrote on Twitter. “We must continue to respect the measures, despite the arrival of good weather, if we want to avoid a third wave.”

Pharmacies in Montreal started booking appointments last Monday, with plans to enlarge the program to the rest of the province in the coming weeks.

Benoit Morin, head of the association representing pharmacy owners, says each participating pharmacy has received a first delivery of 100 doses but adds he’s confident new deliveries will allow for more appointments.

In regions neighbouring Montreal such as Laval, Monteregie, Lanaudiere and the Laurentians, the government has targeted March 29 as the first date to make appointments at participating pharmacies, with vaccinations to begin during the week of April 5.

The association expects about 1,500 pharmacies will eventually take part in the campaign across the province.

Premier François Legault told reporters in Trois-Rivieres that the government plans to bring the vaccination age down to 60 across the province before lowering the age again in Montreal.

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With the number of new cases and hospitalizations no longer on the decline in Quebec, Legault urged Quebeckers to keep their guard up.

“We look at what’s happening in Ontario, in New York, in New Jersey and France and we have to worry,” he said. “We have to be very careful for a certain number of weeks until vulnerable people will be vaccinated.”

About 11.4 per cent of Quebec’s population has received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, with a total of 966,566 shots administered so far, including 21,180 on Sunday.

Quebec officials expect to receive 271,440 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 58,500 doses of Moderna this week but none of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

Meanwhile, authorities in Laval handed out more than $200,000 in fines after a massive gathering in a parking lot Sunday evening.

Officers arrived at around 8 p.m. after receiving calls about the gathering and said there were about 150 vehicles, with many people milling about outside their cars.

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A police spokeswoman says 130 tickets at $1,550 each were given out for breaking public health restrictions on gatherings, and police hope participants get the message such gatherings won’t be tolerated during the pandemic.

Asked about people gathering, Legault called on Quebeckers to avoid visits with others for at least another month. “I can understand that citizens are fed up about the measures, but we’re talking about lives, we’re talking about our hospitals being able to treat all kinds of sickness,” he said.

Since the pandemic began last year, the province has reported 303,051 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 10,614 deaths and 285,682 recoveries.

Quebec is looking to enlist up to 50 companies to operate vaccination hubs across several regions to help accelerate its immunization campaign for people under 60 starting in May. The Canadian Press

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