As Quebec moves to ease COVID-19 restrictions, daily death toll remains in double digits

·6 min read
Gloria Schenke died of COVID-19 at the beginning of January, shortly after she turned 87. Schenke had been in relatively good health before contracting the virus.  (Submitted by Stephen Schenke - image credit)
Gloria Schenke died of COVID-19 at the beginning of January, shortly after she turned 87. Schenke had been in relatively good health before contracting the virus. (Submitted by Stephen Schenke - image credit)

At 87 years old, Gloria Schenke had lived a full life, but her eldest son says he can't help feeling she and her family were shortchanged.

She still drove, still lived at home in Châteauguay, Que., just southwest of Montreal with his dad, her husband of 63 years, loved Christmas shopping for her grandchildren — and she'd been extremely careful throughout the pandemic, said Stephen Schenke.

But despite that, along with receiving two COVID-19 vaccines and a booster, his mom became terribly sick from the virus and died this month — making her one of more than 1,200 Quebeckers to die from COVID-19 in the past 30 days, according to the province's public health institute.

Schenke's dad also tested positive, but was asymptomatic. Due to the hospital's COVID-19 restrictions, Schenke's younger brother was the only family member at their mom's side.

"I do feel ripped off because my mother would have had another couple of good years were it not for COVID," said Schenke, who suspects she caught the virus around the same time she got her booster, maybe before her third dose had time to take effect. "Nobody should have their life shortened by something that was avoidable."

Still grieving the loss in a province where the daily COVID-19 death toll has remained in double digits throughout January, Schenke questioned the rationale behind the provincial government's Tuesday announcement that it would start loosening pandemic restrictions next week.

He said he wondered if Quebec is easing the rules in response to mounting political pressure.

"It's like an accordion. They open, they close. They open, they close. There doesn't seem to be a baseline policy," said Schenke. "Some doctors are saying we should be more cautious."

Daily deaths by COVID-19 in Quebec

For the past month, as COVID-19 cases have soared across the country, Quebec has the most deaths per capita related to COVID-19 of anywhere in Canada.

The government has argued that's because it counts deaths using a different methodology that detects more of the people who died than other provinces.

Although the highly contagious Omicron variant appears to cause less severe disease, grieving families and discouraged health care workers say it continues to cause untimely deaths in Quebec and across Canada.

And unlike past waves of the virus, when the majority of deaths were in long-term care, Quebec's public health institute, the INSPQ data shows most of the people who died in this fifth wave — like Gloria Schenke — caught the virus while living at home.

WATCH | Quebec premier says province must learn to live with COVID:

At a news conference Tuesday, Quebec Premier François Legault announced the province would begin easing some restrictions starting next Monday.

Restaurants will once again be allowed to reopen at half capacity as of Monday, Jan. 31, he said. Up to four people from four different addresses, or a maximum of two family bubbles, will be allowed to share a table. And the same numbers will apply to indoor private gatherings.

He also explained what it means to live with the pandemic in Quebec.

"Eventually we have to accept that we'll continue to have a certain number of deaths and we'll have to accept that we'll continue to have a certain number of people in our hospitals," said Legault.

But the deaths aren't limited to the elderly.

Health care staff tired, frustrated

Joanie Bolduc-Dionne, the head intensive care nurse at Laval's Cité-de-la-Santé hospital, said a lot of patients in their 40s, 50s and 60s have died recently.

"In the last two weeks, it's been really bad," she said.

Although the numbers were still being tallied, she says most of the patients she sees in Laval's ICU lately are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated.

"One dose just isn't enough," said Bolduc-Dionne. "Two doses with Omicron isn't enough. It's just not going to cut it. You really need to have your booster."

That echoes the findings of three U.S. studies released last week that showed COVID-19 booster shots are helping prevent emergency and urgent care visits linked with the virus.

Dave St-Amant/CBC
Dave St-Amant/CBC

Unvaccinated people in Quebec were nearly six times more likely to land in hospital and 12 times more likely to end up in the ICU than those who had received at least two doses, according to data over the past 28 days from the Health Ministry.

The provincial government has not yet released similar data on the effects of the booster shot on hospitalization rates.

Occasionally, Bolduc-Dionne says there are a few patients who end up in the ICU who have had three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, but these patients usually had a pre-existing health issue like diabetes or cancer that made them more susceptible to complications.

The latest surge of patients has taken a toll on morale, Bolduc-Dionne said, and health care workers are tired. Lately, there's been a lot of crying and frustration.

"When you see how many patients that are still unvaccinated that are coming into the ICU, I mean, after 22 months, you're like, 'Why?'" she said. "'Why are there so many people who don't understand how serious this is?'"

Early warning signs ignored

Erin Strumpf, an associate professor of health economics at McGill University in Montreal, said it's "shocking" to still see so many people dying this far into the pandemic — either with COVID-19 or because they can't get medical care due to the strain on the health-care system.

Despite early warning signs from countries like England and France about the seriousness of Omicron, the province didn't react quickly enough, she said.

"Even after five rounds of this, we're not learning from what happens in Europe and we're not acting on it," said Strumpf.

As for the Schenke family, although Stephen Schenke understands the province takes the lead on health care, he said he feels a lack of direction from the federal government about how to handle the pandemic at the outset didn't help.

He believes the country should have adopted a war-time strategy.

"This whole thing has been politicized," said Schenke, a corporate lawyer in Montreal. "People on the left think that the government is not doing enough and people on the right think the government is being dictatorial and the politicians are just playing politics."

He said he finds it offensive when he hears people downplay the latest deaths as not being "that bad" because it's mostly among the elderly or those with underlying conditions.

"My mother was the queen of our family," said Schenke. "She was courageous, active, very determined and involved in our lives."

"I'm thankful for the 87 years she had of course, but I do feel that she would have had another couple of good years."

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