Hospitalizations in Montreal have jumped by over 60 per cent as the number of COVID-19 cases in the city continues to grow exponentially, notably in the younger population.
Montreal's director of public health, Dr. Mylène Drouin, provided an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in the city on Thursday, alongside Sonia Bélanger, who runs the health authority for the city's downtown area, the CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l'Île-de-Montréal.
"This is a critical time for Montreal's health networks as holiday gatherings approach. We are now feeling the impact of rising case numbers on hospitalizations," Bélanger said.
She said 181 people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19 across the city, an increase of 60 per cent over last week.
While the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is sweeping across Montreal boroughs, most patients currently hospitals are infected with the Delta variant. Drouin said the effects of Omicron on hospitalizations won't be known for another seven to 10 days.
The system is currently preparing an additional 550 beds to accommodate COVID-19 patients, though that could ramp up to 1,000 if necessary.
Bélanger said half of surgeries will be postponed as a result of the rising hospitalizations. Urgent surgeries, such as cardiovascular and cancer-related surgeries, will continue.
Young people are majority of new cases
Drouin said that 3,668 new cases were reported to public health Wednesday, but cautions that the true number is likely much higher, as testing centres are struggling to keep up with demand. Others are using at-home rapid tests, which do not necessarily get reported to public health.
The positivity rate in Montreal is hovering around 18-20 per cent, meaning one in five people who do receive a PCR test are positive, she said.
"That's something we've never seen before," she said.
Of those new cases, 90 per cent are the Omicron variant.
Omicron is particularly hitting young Montrealers aged 18 to 44, Drouin said. The age group accounts for 60 per cent of the cases.
"Social events, which could have been in apartments, not necessarily in bars, could explain the transmission," she said.
That is in contrast to the Delta variant, which was prominent among children aged five to 11 and their families, Drouin added.
"Our goal is really to make sure that we do not have this same increase in older [age groups], Drouin said, noting the importance of cutting transmission before the virus reaches the parents and grandparents of the infected young population.
She is calling on people to limit their contacts over the holidays, despite the Quebec government saying that people are allowed to gather in groups of 10 until Dec. 26.
"We all have people around us who are infected; we must reduce our gatherings as much as possible," she said, advising people limit gatherings to their immediate family bubble.
Contact tracing and getting tested
But Drouin said that public health can no longer keep up with contact tracing, and will be putting its resources toward cases that affect vulnerable populations, such as the homeless and the elderly.
Instead, she is asking Montrealers who test positive to reach out to their contacts personally.
"We need you to do part of the work," she said.
Anyone whom an infected person was in close contact with, in the 48 hours leading up to the onset of symptoms, should be informed.
A close contact is someone you were in an indoor setting with, without masks, for at least 15 minutes.
"That means if you had a party in your house, you went to a restaurant, a supper, you went for a beer, you had a ride in the car with a friend – those are close contacts," Drouin said.
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The person should then isolate themselves for ten days. Drouin said that 25 to 40 per cent of close contacts are asymptomatic positive cases.
People can use rapid tests if they have some, but should avoid going to a testing centre unless they have symptoms.
"We don't want people who are just coming to validate their status before a party or a gathering," Drouin said, asking positive-case contacts and people who have received positive rapid tests to avoid overrunning testing clinics.
Some testing centres will be moving to appointment-only due to demand.
Bélanger said some were taking multiple appointments at different testing centres, which is clogging the system.
She also called on employers to stop demanding a positive PCR test for their employees, saying a rapid test is sufficient proof of COVID-19.
Where Omicron is hitting hardest
Drouin said the areas of the city hit hardest are those with higher proportions of young people, such as La Petite-Patrie, the Plateau, Mile End, Villeray, the downtown core and Hochelaga.
According to a Montreal public health report released Tuesday, over one per cent of the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough's population has tested positive in the last 14 days.
In terms of vaccinations, Outremont has the lowest vaccination rate in the city, with only 70 per cent for those five years and older having received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Every other borough has over 75 per cent of its population adequately vaccinated, though Ville-Marie has the highest rate, with 84.8 per cent.
80.8 per cent of all Montrealers have been adequately vaccinated.
Drouin encouraged those who are eligible to go and get a third dose, to be better protected against the variant.