The Lower St. Lawrence thought the second wave had crested. Now COVID-19 is back

·3 min read

The rash of COVID-19 cases at a pair of post-secondary colleges in La Pocatière in September sounded the initial alarm for the second coronavirus wave in Quebec's outlying regions.

It took a lot of hard work, but public health officials were able to fight the virus to a standstill.

Until this week.

On Wednesday, there was news that in Matane — a city largely spared by the virus until now — a dangerous outbreak had begun.

It is currently raging at the Résidence des Bâtisseurs, a retirement home where two residents died of COVID-related problems this week. There are 46 confirmed infections, nine of them among staff.

"It's a major shock," said Jérôme Landry, Matane's mayor. "The MRC de la Matanie was the municipality with the lowest number of cases in the Lower Saint Lawrence. We had a long stretch with no cases at all. We were at 15 on Tuesday, and today we could call it an explosion."

The Lower Saint-Lawrence isn't alone.

Dozens of people in Chibougamau, in the province's north, are currently in preventive isolation after two workers in the town tested positive earlier this week. The region had had a total of just eight cases through Nov. 1. Public health is bracing for the worst.

The Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, which had also reined in the novel coronavirus, all of a sudden leads the province for the rate of active cases — 259 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Premier François Legault is publicly fretting about the situation in that region and in the northern portion of Lanaudière. On Thursday he said "we really have a problem [there]." Lanaudière's rate of active cases is the second highest provincially, at 218 per 100,000.

How big is the problem?

The virus is akin to fighting a forest fire

Dr. Donald Aubin, public health director for the Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, summed it up in a news conference on Wednesday.

"Imagine a [forest] fire." he said. "To fight it requires creating zones it can't cross, creating a distance it can't cover. COVID moves around in roughly the same fashion. It travels by spreading to more and more places."

Another 101 positive tests were logged in the region Thursday. It now has about 800 active cases.

According to the local health authority, there are also at least 60 separate outbreaks, and about 200 health workers are currently in isolation.

In much of the province, community spread has taken root, making it difficult to eradicate the virus. But that doesn't seem to be the case in places like Matane and Chibougamau.

So why are they dealing with outbreaks?

One of the operating theories is that workers may bring be bringing it in with them.

The president of the Résidence des Bâtisseurs group, which is facing the ire of residents in Matane and their families, hinted in an interview with Radio-Canada that it may have originated with staff hired through a work placement agency.

"The agencies guarantee that those people are tested before they're sent to us," said Sébastien Gauthier. "Unfortunately, we're not immune, as everyone can see, to the virus arriving but all [safety] measures were followed."


Dr. Sylvain Leduc, public health director for the Lower Saint-Lawrence, cautioned against trying to pin it on one person or incident.

"With so much contamination at the moment, it's difficult to identify a single source," he said. "In fact, it's probably risky to narrow it down to just one and to point at one individual … it could come from one of many places. It could come from someone who was living in the facility and had access to the community. It could be caregivers. It could be workers."

The more salient question, posed by Landry, is how to stop things from getting worse.

"People need to be a lot more rigorous to prevent spreading the virus to other parts of the region," he said.