More Quebecers caught COVID-19 in 2022 than in previous years, the result of new, more contagious variants and the dropping of public health measures.
New data from the INSPQ, Quebec's public health institute, show that, as of Dec. 29, there were at least 640,000 cases of COVID-19 in Quebec in 2022.
That's almost as many as Quebec tallied during its first two years of the pandemic combined. Quebec had seen 641,777 cases of the disease by the end of 2021. It now stands at 1,282,260.
Quebec also saw more deaths due to COVID-19 in 2022 than in 2021. More than 5,700 people died due to the disease in 2022 compared to 3,300 in 2021. In 2020, the INSPQ attributed 8,500 deaths to the virus. Most of those deaths occurred in long-term care homes and seniors' residences.
In 2022, the INSPQ classified most COVID-19 deaths as having occurred outside of a medical setting, with 3,575 deaths occurring at home or in an unknown locale.
Quebec phased out public health restrictions beginning in late February 2022, gradually dropping capacity restrictions for gatherings, restaurants and bars and, in May, dropped a mandatory masking policy that was in place for most indoor spaces.
A steady flow of COVID-19 hospitalizations continued throughout 2022. COVID-19 hospitalizations remained high all year long, although they reached their peak in January 2022, when Quebec tallied 8,700 new admissions due to COVID-19.
Even in July 2022, in the middle of the summer, a time when the spread of the virus had been low in previous years, there were 5,288 new COVID-19 hospitalizations. By contrast, in July 2021, there were 112 hospitalizations due to COVID-19.
Cécile Tremblay, a microbiologist and infectious diseases specialist at the CHUM hospital in Montreal, said the high number of COVID-19 cases in 2022 was likely due to the circulation of the more contagious omicron variant. In her opinion, the spread showed the need to consider the reinstatement of some public health measures.
"Is it necessary to return to more firm measures?" she asked. "To require the wearing of masks is certainly something to think about."
Tremblay said health officials must monitor the situation in other countries, where COVID-19 cases continue to rise and cause major disruptions.
"Look at what is happening in China right now, where there is an exponential growth of the transmission of the virus — that increases the chances of a new variant circulating," she said.
Tremblay suspects COVID-19 hospitalizations will rise in a few weeks because more people likely caught the virus at Christmas gatherings over Christmas
Karl Weiss, head of infectious diseases at the Jewish General Hospital, said the health system needs to be better organized to cope with viruses like COVID-19. Society, he argued, can't keep shutting down to prevent the spread of new variants.
"It is impossible to live in a society that is completely virus-free," he said. "We can't protect society forever by closing it."
Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, said most people have become less worried about catching COVID-19 because the consequences of infection are lower for those with some immunity either due to vaccines or prior exposure.
But he urged caution. Many people still remain vulnerable to the virus.
"To a certain extent, people who are at a really of severe consequences — the elderly, people who are severely immunocompromised — those people are still at risk and facing a virus that is as contagious as it ever has been and perhaps even more so."
The increase in the number of COVID deaths in 2022 was directly tied to the higher number of infections, Oughton said.
"Even if individually the risk of a svere case is quite low, across a large large number of infections, that still adds up."
Amelie Boisclair, a critical care specialist at the Pierre-Le Gardeur Hospital, said the increase in COVID cases and deaths came as no surprise. She said the government may need to shift the way it communicates COVID-19 numbers to the public.
"I think we didn't learn a lot since three years (ago). We didn't learn to be cautious with the virus. We just wanted it to be over," she said.
"It's still very much there and it's not mild. It's not something that we can just live with without acknowledging that the virus is there."