A group of physicians, infectious disease specialists and other health experts say the Quebec government needs to shut down the Montreal region, before the spread of coronavirus variants spirals out of control.
Since Thursday evening, Quebec City, Lévis and Gatineau have the harshest lockdown measures in the province. Schools, gyms, theatres, restaurant dining rooms and other non-essential businesses are closed until at least April 12. Places of worship must limit the number of visitors to 25, while in other cities up to 250 people are permitted.
The curfew in these cities was moved up from 9:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
The premier made the decision due to the rapid spread of variants, but a group of experts called STOP COVID says if the government isn't proactive, there's no reason to believe the Montreal region won't soon be in the same position. The group says tightening restrictions now could lead to a shorter lockdown.
"Instead of us still being in this type of a pandemic situation that affects us with restrictive measures for six weeks, eight weeks or ten weeks, we could maybe take control of the situation in just a few weeks," said Dr Amir Khadir, an infectious disease specialist at Pierre-Le Gardeur Hospital.
"If there's a lesson we need to learn from the last year, half measures make the situation worse. They fix nothing."
The Montreal region is still designated a red zone, but gyms remain open and some places of worship can welcome up to 250 people.
The province's decision to impose harsher restrictions in the three cities came after a major outbreak at a Quebec City gym. More than 140 COVID-19 cases and 20 outbreaks have been linked to the fitness centre. On Friday, more than 1,300 cases were reported in the province — the highest number since late January.
The daily case totals in Montreal have increased in recent days, but have remained below 400, a positive sign, according to the province's health minister.
"I think Montreal, up to now, has won the battle against variants," Minister Christian Dubé told Radio-Canada on Thursday.
Dr. Marie-Michelle Bellon, an internal medicine specialist who is also part of the COVID-STOP collective, says her patients have gotten younger since variants began spreading in the Montreal region.
"Because of the variants, we're facing a pandemic that is very different," she said. "Let's pump the brakes before it's too late."
Lockdown only part of solution, experts say
The group says imposing stricter restrictions in Montreal and slowing down the reopening of the region would provide an opportunity to introduce more strategies to contain the spread of the virus.
"For us, this timeout, it would especially be to deploy rapid testing kits for widespread screening," Khadir said. "We don't have the health-care personnel to go put little sticks in everyone's nose."
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Nancy Delagrave, STOP COVID's spokesperson in matters related to ventilation and aerosol transmission, says deploying more CO2 sensors is an easy to track how well ventilated schools, malls and workplaces are.
A spokesperson for the Health Ministry says it understands STOP COVID's position, but insists that its team of experts is monitoring the situation in the province "from hour to hour," and that the government acted quickly to stop the spread of the coronavirus in Quebec City, Lévis and Gatineau.