QUEBEC — The deputy premier issued a fervent plea on Friday to residents in the Quebec City region: stay home and stay away from one another, or risk overwhelming the area's hospitals.
"The hour is grave in the Capitale-Nationale and in Chaudière-Appalaches," Geneviève Guilbault said. "We need the collaboration of everyone to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The reason we do this is to save lives, to protect our vulnerable people and support our health system."
The Capitale-Nationale region counts the highest per capita number of active COVID-19 cases, including 117 new cases tallied Friday. Chaudière-Appalaches, the region to the immediate south of Quebec City, has counted nearly 100 new cases for three straight days, including 88 on Friday.
Guilbault's message struck a familiar tone. Health and government officials have been united throughout the month of October, urging Quebecers to redouble their efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.
"We repeat this message frequently," Guilbault said, "perhaps so frequently that it's as if we no longer hear it. Today I will be extremely frank and direct with you. If we don’t retighten our efforts quickly, if we continue to do what we’re doing right now in Quebec and on the south shore (the Chaudière-Appalaches region), it’s not complicated: we expose ourselves to the possibility that citizens can simply not receive care in certain circumstances."
Guilbault listed off outbreaks in hospitals that had already prevented some people from receiving treatment. Staffing issues had forced the temporary weekend closure of an obstetrics department at a hospital in Thetford Mines. At the Malbaie hospital, an outbreak of COVID-19 led to surgeries being delayed or transferred. At the Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Lévis, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, the number of infected staff and patients had grown steadily through October.
Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume sat beside Guilbault as she spoke at Friday's news conference, with his mouth bent into a tight frown.
"My personal feeling," he said in a low voice, "is that we’re at the tipping point. And being at the tipping point is dangerous, because there’s a 50/50 chance the needle will fall on the wrong side."
Some in the region saw Guilbault's message as alarmist. Jeff Fillion, a host on Radio X — a controversial populist radio station whose lunchtime show claims the most listeners in the Quebec City area — heard the deputy premier's comments and reacted with anger.
“You are giving us lessons with a wagging finger,” Fillion said of Guilbault. “It’s nothing to do with us, it’s everything to do with you … with your management. You screwed us.”
Guilbault, for her part, addressed the sentiment that some in the wider Quebec City region and in Chaudière-Appalaches appeared less likely to follow the public health guidelines.
"For sure there are people who are dissidents," she said. "Since the start of the second wave, there are people who decided that, well, COVID isn’t real or isn’t bad and they took it lightly. There are still today those who are dissidents. If all those people don’t follow the rules, it doesn’t help the community transmission."
Gatherings have been forbidden in the region since Oct. 1, when it was declared a red zone. Police in the Quebec City area have issued between 100 and 200 tickets each week, Guilbault said, which is similar to other Quebec regions.
Even as Guilbault warned that the health network is fragile in the Capitale-Nationale and Chaudière-Appalaches, Health Minister Christian Dubé welcomed new projections that showed the health system would likely be able to handle the number of COVID-19 patients in the coming weeks without becoming overwhelmed.
The projections, which were released Friday by the Institut national d'excellence en santé et en services sociaux, showed that "if the rate of transmission remains constant, the number of new hospitalizations for all of Quebec could stabilize, or even begin to decrease," according to a news release.
The update provided a ray of hope compared to one released two weeks ago showing that if cases continued to grow, Quebec's health system was in real danger of being overwhelmed.
But the new projections contained data from before Oct. 18, and therefore failed to take into account the impact of more recent outbreaks at long-term care homes, where residents who catch the virus are much more likely to require medical care.
Dubé called the projections "reassuring" in a statement, but suggested that measures intended to slow the spread of the virus were likely to be kept in place.
"We need to stay the course in this regard over the coming weeks," he said.
Quebec tallied 905 new cases on Friday, a slight drop from the common 1,000 cases per day that have been counted almost every day for the past two weeks.
Matthew Lapierre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Gazette