The Quebec government on Tuesday said it will allow private indoor gatherings of up to 20 people as of Dec. 23, with Health Minister Christian Dubé firmly recommending that people attending those gatherings be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Dubé said public health is asking people to be responsible and continue to follow public health measures. No other easing of restrictions will be announced for the holidays, and other public health restrictions remain in effect.
The government did not announce a date for when the loosened rules on gatherings will end.
"If we have to reconsider that after the holidays, we'll take a look. Because we don't like going back," said Dubé, noting he wants the measure to last.
Currently, only 10 people or those from three different households are allowed in private homes.
Officials warn against mixing vaccinated, unvaccinated guests
Dubé said there will also be no surveillance measures associated with the new rule.
"We trust Quebecers to be responsible," Dubé said during a news conference with Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda and Daniel Paré, the head of Quebec's vaccination campaign.
Though the health minister said he is "strongly" against having unvaccinated people attend holiday gatherings "for obvious reasons," a news release from the Health Ministry later clarified that it is only "recommended" that those attending holiday gatherings be vaccinated.
Arruda said people who want to socialize with someone who is unvaccinated should wear a mask and physically distance, but his recommendation is not to mix vaccinated and non-vaccinated people at all.
"The best gift you could get for Christmas is a vaccine."
'I feel reassured,' public health director says
Arruda said a big factor in the decision to double the private home gathering limit was the stability of hospitalizations in the province, despite an increase in cases.
"We have [another] week of data," he said. "Maybe two weeks ago I wouldn't have done the same, but today I feel reassured."
He also pointed to a detailed sampling of almost 900 positive COVID tests on Nov. 30 that found none of them contained the omicron variant, which the government has said it is following closely. At this point, there is still only one case of the variant in Quebec and it is travel-related.
"I've got data that it's not actually circulating in Quebec," Arruda said, noting he had assessed the risks based on the current epidemiology before presenting recommendations for holidays to the Health Ministry.
"We give ourselves a calculated freedom."
More booster shot eligibility
The province also announced that third doses of a COVID-19 vaccine are now available for health-care workers, people with chronic illnesses and other health issues, people from isolated and remote communities and pregnant people, totalling one million more people who are eligible for the booster dose.
The province also reminded those eligible for boosters that a minimum period of six months from their second vaccine dose must be observed before obtaining a third dose.
Previously in Quebec, booster doses were only available to people over 70, people with weakened immune systems and those who received two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.
People 60 and over will also be eligible for a third dose, but will have to wait for the beginning of January. Dubé said the reason for the delay is that the province has just enough staff right now to administer vaccines to seniors, young children and those already eligible.
Vaccine uptake in children 'very encouraging'
According to Dubé, of Quebecers 12 and older who are eligible to be vaccinated, 640,000 still have yet to get a vaccine.
He said nearly 200,000 children aged five to 11 have been vaccinated, with appointments booked for almost another 100,000. This means 43 per cent of children in this age group are vaccinated or are about to be vaccinated.
"That's very encouraging," he said.
Last week, Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) strongly recommended a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine for all Canadians 50 and older. NACI also recommended Canadians aged 18 to 49 get a third mRNA shot at least six months after their second dose.
On Tuesday, Dubé explained that Quebec's immunization committee has said it's not necessary for people under 60 to get a booster shot as there is no decrease in the effectiveness in the vaccine for those people.
"If ever we see that 50 to 59-year-olds are less protected, we will add them more quickly," Arruda said.