MONTREAL — Quebec Premier Francois Legault said Tuesday he's concerned about a rise in the number of active COVID-19 cases in five parts of the province where restrictions were recently loosened.
The government is sending a larger proportion of its vaccine supply to those five regions, Legault said, adding that he'll increase restrictions if residents don't follow health orders.
“The problem we see is that people in five regions right now don’t follow the rules that are in place, especially for visits in homes,” he told reporters in Quebec City. “If needed, we’ll put additional measures because right now we see a very fast increase in those five regions.”
The five parts of the province under heightened surveillance are Quebec City; Outaouais, particularly the city of Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa; Bas-St-Laurent; Chaudiere-Appalaches; and the Saguenay—Lac-St-Jean region.
All five are under the “orange” pandemic alert level — the province’s second highest. Several of them were moved to the orange level earlier this month.
Quebec has reported an average of 876 new cases each day over the past week, up from 709 the week before. If trends continue, Legault said he could reimpose an 8 p.m. curfew in those five regions.
Montreal, Legault said, once the epicentre of the pandemic in Canada, is stable.
There are roughly 94.5 active cases per 100,000 people in Quebec, but in some parts of Bas-St-Laurent, on the lower shore of the St. Lawrence River, there are 400 active cases per 100,000 people. In one part of Saguenay, there are 368 active cases per 100,000 people, while in the Beauce region of Chaudiere-Appalaches, there are 199 active cases per 100,000 people.
Legault said he’s most concerned about the situation in Outaouais, where there is a shortage of hospital capacity. He said Quebec is working with Ontario to try and harmonize the restrictions on both sides of the Ottawa River.
With the rise in cases, Legault said he expects a rise in hospitalizations. “We should see an increase in hospitalizations in the coming weeks," he said. "At the moment, we expect it won't exceed our capacity, but that can change very quickly."
Quebec’s public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, responded to criticism from the professional body representing Quebec physicians, about his advice to ease restrictions. On Monday, high school students in the province’s red zones, including Montreal, returned to in-person classes full time.
Arruda told reporters he accepts that there is a certain level of risk that comes with the return to in-person learning but that public health has to consider other factors. “There are kids that are going to fail their year, there are kids with mental health issues,” Arruda said. “Public health is not only infectious disease, it’s also (about) those impacts (and) violence toward women."
Following a recommendation Monday from federal experts to suspend use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in people under 55, Legault said he believes the vaccine is safe for people over 55. "The greater risk is to refuse to be vaccinated," he said.
Earlier on Tuesday, Quebec's public health institute said it confirmed 429 more COVID-19 cases that involve variants of concern. The institute said there were 1,134 confirmed cases in the province of more contagious mutations. It said it also detected 468 more suspected cases of variants, bringing the total of suspected cases to 6,948.
Health authorities reported 864 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday and seven more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including one within the previous 24 hours. Officials said the number of hospitalizations rose by 10, to 487, and 126 people were in intensive care, a rise of six.
Quebec has reported a total of 310,066 COVID-19 infections and 10,658 deaths linked to the virus.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press