Quebec premier calls on people to avoid contact with seniors as hospitalizations rise

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MONTREAL — Quebec's schools, factories and construction sites are open during the provincewide lockdown because they are largely devoid of people 65 years and older, Premier Francois Legault said Monday.

Eighty per cent of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Quebec are over the age of 65, as are 95 per cent of the people in the province who have died from the novel coronavirus, Legault told reporters.

The decision to impose a provincewide curfew between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. and to close most businesses other than manufacturing and construction was made to protect seniors and the health-care system, Legault added.

"Most of these people, they don't work and they don't go to school — they are at home," he said of Quebecers over the age of 65, adding that seniors are getting infected in their homes and that has to stop.

"Our challenge is really to try to have less gatherings in homes in Quebec. I don't think that if we closed more companies or closed more schools that we would solve our problem."

Legault said police issued 740 tickets over the weekend to people violating the curfew, which began Saturday and which is intended to be in place for four weeks.

Earlier Monday, Quebec's elementary school students returned to class. Schools have been closed since Dec. 17, with remote learning in place during part of that period. High school students return next Monday.

Legault described reopening schools as a "calculated risk," adding that keeping children home — despite remote learning options — will hurt their social development. The harms outweigh the risks, he said.

Recent government data has indicated that schools have accounted for about 24 per cent of all non-active outbreaks in the province — second only to workplaces.

Corrine Payne, general director of parents’ group Federation des comites de parents du Quebec, said her organization is pleased to see children heading back to class.

"The best place for our children is in school, for them to learn — parents are not teachers," she said in an interview Monday. "Parents have a great concern that their children are falling behind and not acquiring certain essential (knowledge) that they need to have."

Some medical experts, however, have questioned the decision to reopen schools.

Dr. Marina Klein, a professor of medicine at McGill University, said children are not immune to becoming infected — although they may suffer fewer symptoms than older people — and they can transmit the virus to others.

Klein said that at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, all of the dedicated intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients are full, adding that if more beds are needed, it will limit the hospital's ability to care for other patients.

"At no point thus far in the pandemic have we been in the position we're in now," she said in an interview Monday.

During the first wave, she said, most people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Quebec were residents of long-term care homes. The people currently being hospitalized with COVID-19, she continued, are younger — in their 60s and 70s — and need intensive care beds more often than patients did during the first wave.

Quebec reported 1,869 new cases of COVID-19 Monday, the second day since Dec. 17 that the province has reported fewer than 2,000 COVID-19 cases. Health authorities reported 51 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including 18 within the preceding 24 hours. They said hospitalizations rose by 56, to 1,436, and 211 people were in intensive care, a rise of eight.

Meanwhile, Quebec's national public health institute said Monday the number of outbreaks in workplaces rose during the week ending Jan. 2. There were 728 workplace outbreaks reported, connected to 3,651 infections, the institute said, adding that 37 per cent of infections were linked to manufacturing facilities and 21 per cent were linked to retail stores.

The Health Department said 8,400 doses of vaccine were administered Sunday, for a total of 92,452.

Quebec has reported 230,690 cases of COVID-19 and 8,737 deaths linked to the virus since the beginning of the pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2021.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press