Experts urge prudence after data shows variants will be dominant in Quebec by April

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MONTREAL — For Montrealer Tristan Huber, the ability to go back to the gym "is like a dream come true."

"It's like heaven," he said, taking a break from a chest exercise machine at Anytime Fitness in the city's Plateau borough on Friday afternoon, the first day in nearly six months that gyms in Quebec's "red" zones have been allowed to open.

"It really allows for everyone here to re-establish their mental health and their physical fitness in a way that COVID kind of took away from us for a year," Huber, one of around 10 people exercising at the gym, said.

Gyms reopened the same day Quebec's government-mandated public health institute warned that more transmissible novel coronavirus variants will represent the majority of infections in the province by the first week of April.

But Premier Francois Legault told reporters later in the day he wasn't considering reversing his decision to reopen gyms or to allow places of worship to welcome up to 250 people. The premier is also permitting all high school students in red zones, such as Montreal, to go to class full time starting Monday.

“We were expecting a rise in the number of cases and we were expecting a higher percentage of cases of the U.K. variant,” Legault said after he received his dose of COVID-19 vaccine at Montreal's Olympic Stadium.

Earlier this week, Legault said the province was resisting a third wave, but acknowledged Friday the province now appears to be at the beginning of one.

Mathieu Maheu-Giroux with the Institut national de sante publique du Quebec told a virtual news conference Friday that recent modelling indicates the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants will soon compose more than 50 per cent of new COVID-19 infections in Quebec.

He said the models are based on the evidence that certain variants are about 40 per cent more transmissible compared to the strain originally dominant in the province. But a third wave will depend on how people and authorities handle the uptick in cases, Maheu-Giroux added.

"A third wave will depend on the measures, the decisions and the adhesion of the population to the recommendations of public health, of the decisions which are being made at the moment," Maheu-Giroux, an epidemiologist at McGill University, said.

Dr. Gaston De Serres, an epidemiologist with the public health institute, said it's clear the measures in place weren't successful in stemming the progression of variants and there are signs Quebecers have let their guards down.

"The current trend will continue unless there is a tighter or better adherence to the precautions," he said.

Institute experts note that vaccinating people 65 and older is expected to greatly reduce hospitalization and death rates but warn that greater transmissibility and positivity rates in younger people will mean more serious consequences for those age cohorts.

Meanwhile, restrictions were loosened on places of worship in red and orange zones on Friday. The maximum number of worshippers is now 250 people across the province.

But Mary Irwin Gibson, bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Montreal, said most Anglican churches in the province are too small to host that many people. While some Anglican churches will open at 50 per cent capacity, others plan to stay closed, she added, because they serve elderly congregations or because they haven't prepared for the reopening.

"We are going to celebrate Easter as best we can, depending on the gifts and abilities of each of the congregations," Gibson said.

She said despite the health orders, her members have come together for services held online or over the phone. "I think it's been quite wonderful to celebrate online, to find creative ways to be in touch with one another," Gibson said.

Quebec reported a second consecutive day of more than 900 cases on Friday, with 950 new COVID-19 infections and seven more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including one in the past 24 hours.

Some regions are seeing rising case counts linked to variants. In the Bas-St-Laurent area, all primary and secondary students in the Kamouraska–Riviere-du-Loup school district will switch to virtual learning until at least April 5 after variants were identified in schools.

Legault said authorities will be keeping tabs on hospitalizations, which have been trending downward. He also implored the population to avoid gatherings and follow public health rules.

On Friday, health authorities reported that hospitalizations dropped by 15, to 481, and 115 people were in intensive care, a drop of two. The province administered a new high of 54,951 doses of COVID-19 vaccine Thursday, for a total of 1,121,958 doses since the campaign began.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 26, 2021.

Jacob Serebrin and Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press