Experts worry AstraZeneca death will deter others from getting vaccinated

MONTREAL — A 54-year-old woman has died in the province after receiving the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, Quebec’s public health director Horacio Arruda confirmed Tuesday.

“We just had our first patient who has died of a thrombosis, cerebral thrombosis, following vaccination from AstraZeneca,” said Arruda in a news conference. “This is an event that is rare. We knew that it might happen. We have a risk of default one in every 100,000 doses today.”

Arruda said it was a risk the province knew it was taking, and that the benefits outweigh the risks.

“It puts a face on a statistic and for us, statistics are always people, and there’s no way of knowing who the person is who is going to react that way,” he added. “People don’t get vaccinated to die. It’s rare, and we can’t predict it. But for the population at large, vaccination remains beneficial.”

The woman was identified by her family as Francine Boyer. Her husband, Alain Serres, confirmed her death in a news release Tuesday evening.

According to the release, Serres and Boyer received their first dose of the vaccine on April 9. Over the next few days, Boyer experienced “great fatigue along with headaches,” but Serres had no side effects.

Boyer sought help at the nearest hospital and was then transferred to the Montreal Neurological Institute-Hospital before she died of cerebral thrombosis on April 23, the release said.

The family is asking for privacy and encouraging people who get the vaccine to stay alert for symptoms or unusual reactions and to contact health-care professionals if in doubt.

“I’m very sad to know that a 54-year-old woman in good shape… died because she was vaccinated,” Quebec Premier Francois Legault said.

“Unfortunately these cases happen… I think people will still continue getting vaccinated,” he added. “It’s very unfortunate and we’re sad about it, but unfortunately, that’s the price of vaccination.” 

Montreal’s MUHC confirmed the death occurred in one of its hospitals.

“For confidentially reasons, we have nothing else to add at this point,” said an MUHC spokesperson in an email.

Dr. Marc Rodger, the MUHC’s physician-in-chief, says experts aren’t yet able to predict who will develop clots from the vaccine.

“It really is like lightning striking,” he said.

Boyer’s family issued a public statement Wednesday urging Quebecers who have gotten the AstraZeneca shot to be vigilant of symptoms, such as blurred vision, swollen limbs, and abdominal pain.

“They’re not subtle symptoms,” he said. “They will prompt people to seek medical attention.”

The European Medicines Agency also encourages people to seek medical help if they experience shortness of breath, severe headaches, or develop tiny blood spots under the skin beyond the injection site.

More than 400,000 people have been vaccinated with the AstraZeneca vaccine in the province so far.

Health officials said there are two or three people still under surveillance for blood clotting, though its not confirmed whether those cases are a result of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“There’s probably been two cases that are confirmed. Unfortunately (there is) the case that I just announced of the person who died,” said Arruda. “Another person who had a thrombosis, but who had treatment and who is recovering. And the other two people as well, for whom were waiting for confirmation.”

THE PRICE OF PREVENTION

Infectious disease expert Matthew Oughton acknowledged the woman’s death was a tragedy, especially since the death was “directly due to a preventive medical intervention. It hits you hard because, even with the best of intentions, you get a complication that leads to exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to prevent.”

But he added that the death was the “unfortunate price of protecting the health of the large population. The vaccine, we know, has done a very good job at keeping many people from getting severely sick and often from having long-term complications and dying from this disease, as well.”

Oughton said the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines have been evident but that every healthcare action can come with a small amount of risk. 

With Quebec’s share of Pfizer vaccine shipments set to almost double next week, Oughton said he hopes the woman’s death does not deter others from getting their shot.

“We’re poised to accelerate efforts a little bit,” he said, “ultimately allowing us to be able to get back a lot of the activities and, in a safe fashion, reduce the restrictions we’ve been under for such a long time now.”

Lawmakers also renewed calls for people to get vaccinated Wednesday. 

“I’m pretty sure that a lot of people do not want to be inoculated with AstraZenica, and that’s a big problem,” said Parti Quebecois Leader Pascal Berube.

“Every vaccine has a risk,” said Liberal House Leader Andre Fortin. “It’s important for people to know those risks, but also to know the benefits.”

— With files from CTV reporter Matt Gilmour

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