Public health officials in Montreal say they need more capacity to test for the coronavirus, as thousands of young adults respond to a citywide call to get checked out if they've been to a bar in the past month.
The call went out Saturday afternoon following reports of possible outbreaks at a handful of bars in the Montreal area.
On Tuesday morning, people lined up for as long as three hours outside the walk-in testing clinic in the old Hôtel-Dieu hospital, located in one of the city's densest residential neighbourhoods.
Dr. David Kaiser, a physician with the public health authority for the island of Montreal, said testing has increased by 50 per cent since last week, especially among 20- to 39-year-olds. Around 3,000 people have been tested in the last two days in Montreal.
But with the increase in testing, officials are finding more cases.
The positivity rate in Montreal — that is, the number of cases found per total number of tests — had dropped below one per cent. It's now around three per cent, Kaiser said, an increase of 10 to 15 cases per day.
While still much lower than the peak reached between late April and mid-May, the increase has prompted city officials to seek ways to boost testing capacity.
"These are cases that wouldn't necessarily have been detected otherwise," Kaiser said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, noting that younger carriers of COVID-19 tend to experience fewer symptoms or be asymptomatic altogether.
"Bringing young people out to get tested is going to help us with the public health response," he said.
More clinics needed
Despite being responsible for public health in Quebec's biggest city, the public health department for Montreal does not control testing resources in its territory — that falls to regional health boards and the provincial Health Ministry. Kaiser said he expects both to mobilize more resources in the coming days to reduce the wait times at walk-in centres.
"From a public health perspective, walk-in clinics are needed across the island of Montreal," Kaiser said.
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Premier François Legault said Tuesday that provincial authorities will make adjustments to meet the testing demand in Montreal.
He also said he "was not satisfied" with the daily number of tests being done in the province.
He's given the same answer for several months as Quebec has failed to meet its daily target of 14,000 tests.
Bars reaching out to clients
Public health officials have linked some 30 cases of COVID-19 to nine different bars in the Montreal area since bars reopened late last month. Some have taken to social media to say either staff or customers had tested positive.
In a Facebook post Monday evening, McKibbin's Irish Pub in Pointe-Claire announced one of its employees tested positive.
"Although the risk of exposure to our clients is low, as we have implemented all of the government safety guidelines, we would encourage anyone who has visited our West Island establishment to get tested," the post said.
The pub said it would close for the next two days to give staff time to get tested and to allow the space to be fully sanitized and disinfected.
Bar Minéral, in the Gay Village, is also urging clients and staff to get tested, since it learned that multiple clients and employees had tested positive.
Kaiser noted contact tracing can be difficult with people who have been drinking.
"Without being ill-intentioned, they can forget who they have been in contact with," he said, and he encouraged customers to fill out the registries that bars have set up.
He also said, for the moment, there are no plans to close bars or restaurants, despite the increase in number of cases.
The public health department's contact tracing team is still determining what role bars are playing in the current transmission chains. Cases have also been linked recently to workplaces and private events, such as parties and barbecues, Kaiser said.
"We don't have any outbreaks related to grocery stores or restaurants at the present time," he said.
Last week, the province announced new regulations for bars, including earlier closing times and decreased capacity.
Bars are also included in Quebec's mandatory mask regulations which go into effect July 18.