Quebec Premier François Legault has announced that as of Dec. 26, indoor gatherings in the province will be limited to six people — or two family bubbles — in an effort to slow the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant and limit hospital admissions.
"There's truly a steep exponential rise in cases," Legault said during a Wednesday news conference. "We believe in the next few days there will be a big increase in hospitalizations."
Restaurants will also be limited to serving groups of six, or two family bubbles. Legault said the new measures are aimed at preventing hospitals from being overrun.
The premier stopped short of announcing a curfew, which sources told Radio-Canada was discussed the night before.
For now, officials are also ruling out a return to the colour-coded system that limited inter-regional travel, and allowed for varied levels of restrictions in different zones.
WATCH | Legault outlines Quebec's new rules:
"If you stay home, there is no risk," Legault said, encouraging people to avoid gathering — especially with those over 60 who are most at risk of getting seriously ill with COVID-19.
He said there are ways to minimize the risk of gathering in homes: host small gatherings, wear a mask, keep a two-metre distance and regularly ventilate the space by opening the windows.
Legault said the province expects to see 9,000 new cases tomorrow. He said it is crucial that people stay home if they have symptoms or test positive.
The Omicron variant has become the dominant strain of the virus in Quebec, causing about 80 per cent of infections.
Hospital capacity is reduced
Hospital capacity in the province is about a third of what it was at the beginning of the pandemic and before the fall, due to severe staff shortages, according to the provincial Health Ministry.
Nearly 5,200 health workers are currently off the job due to COVID infections. Thousands more are on leave or have left altogether, exhausted by the pandemic's toll.
To those workers, Legault said on Wednesday that "we will never thank you enough. I know that it has been difficult."
But the worst isn't yet behind us, he added, and "all of Quebec is counting on you. The next few weeks will be critical."
Quebec's public health research institute, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ), released new projections Wednesday of Omicron's possible impact on the number of cases and hospitalizations.
The projections differ depending on the types of measures the government decides on and how strongly the population adheres to them. It is also unclear how severe of a disease the variant could cause and just how much it evades vaccination immunity.
Among the best case scenarios, there could be a peak of about 150 hospitalizations per day by January, with daily cases rising above 6,000 in December, which already happened on Wednesday.
In a more pessimistic scenario — if Omicron causes severe illness, is highly transmissible, easily evades vaccination immunity and the administration of third doses continues to go slowly — the INSPQ warned of an "exponential increase" in hospitalizations, peaking in January with more than 250 admissions per day.
Message to the unvaccinated: Stay home
Legault had a clear message to those who are refusing to get vaccinated.
"It is clear that you are at much greater risk because you are unvaccinated and you are putting our hospitals at risk," he said.
Less than 10 per cent of adults are unvaccinated, but they represent 50 per cent of hospitalizations, Legault said. If those 10 per cent were to get vaccinated, the number of hospitalizations could be halved, he said.
"If you don't do it for yourself, do it for others," Legault said. "Or stay home, because there is a greater risk you will end up in the hospital and perhaps stop some people from getting urgent care."
New paradigm of self-assessment: Arruda
The province's contact-tracing efforts have been overrun by the surge in cases.
Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda said the province is "entering a new paradigm of self-management of the disease" where people need to self-isolate when positive, and warn people they've been in contact with.
WATCH | Long line outside Montreal testing site:
Health Minister Christian Dubé said it is still unclear how hard Omicron will affect hospitalizations, since most patients right now are infected with the Delta variant.
Dubé said Quebec is watching Europe because the situation is 10 days ahead of Quebec, and it takes time to see how bad the impact will be.
No word on when restrictions may end
Dubé declined to predict how long the newest health restrictions will be in place, saying it will be up to people to help prevent the spread of the virus by decreasing contacts.
Officials touted the importance of the third dose throughout the news conference, citing plans to ramp up the booster-shot campaign in the coming two months.
"You should get your third dose as soon as you can," said Legault. "We believe the measures in place will keep the situation under control, but if we see that we need to do more, we won't hesitate to do it."
WATCH | Quebec premier and public health director explain current situation:
Legault defended the government's initial decision to delay the time between shots to six months as it was considered the best way to keep people protected.
Now with the threat of Omicron, the government is speeding up the distribution of third doses, allowing people to get a third shot three months after their second.
But Legault said he is not considering opening up third doses to all adults — as Ontario has done — since most hospitalizations involve people over the age of 60.
Reach out to loved ones, Legault says
As officials monitor the situation closely, the premier encouraged people to reach out to friends and loved ones who may be alone this Christmas.
"Please call people who are alone," said Legault.
There is a shortage of rapid tests in the province, but Dubé and Legault both said they are working on solutions. The federal government is expected to send more than 700,000 new tests, and the health minister said the Quebec government isn't ruling out purchasing its own tests privately.
The spike in cases earlier this month has been attributed to the Delta variant, a rise in person-to-person contacts earlier in the fall, and the waning of vaccine immunity over time.
A report also released today by another government research body, the Institut national d'excellence en santé et en services sociaux (INESSS), found that if there had been no government measures, there could be more than 1,000 people in hospital with COVID-19 by Jan. 10.
"The mitigation suggestions that came from the government [this week] could have an impact on that and change those expectations and we seriously hope so," said Luc Boileau, the head of INESSS.
"If we change our ways, lower our contacts, then those figures might change in an important way."