MONTREAL — The number of COVID-19 cases in Quebec is rising "exponentially," Premier François Legault said Wednesday, but his government will wait until after Christmas to further restrict private gatherings.
Beginning Sunday, gatherings in private homes will be limited to six people or two family bubbles, Legault told a news conference in Montreal. Restaurants, which are already operating at half capacity and have to close at 10 p.m., will also have to limit groups at tables to six people or two families.
Until then, gatherings of up to 10 people will remain permitted, he said.
“Until Saturday, we’re letting people who absolutely want to gather, but I invite all Quebecers who can put off their gatherings to do so,” he said.
Legault said Quebec recorded about 9,000 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, which will be reported in Thursday's official numbers, making it the fifth straight day that the province has reported a record number of new infections.
He said the steady rise is putting the health network at risk and his government "won't hesitate" to add further restrictions if needed.
“In the past week, the number of COVID cases has tripled. We have today about 9,000 new cases, and we expect hospitalizations to continue to increase,” he said. “Our goal remains the same, to protect our hospitals so that we can continue to treat all those who need it.”
Asked if Quebec has underestimated the speed with which the Omicron variant would spread, Legault said the number of cases didn't tell the whole story and that Ontario had twice as many people in intensive care the day before.
Earlier in the day, the Health Department said 445 people were in hospital, a rise of 30 from Tuesday, including 88 in intensive care.
It's the third time in less than a week that Quebec has announced new restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus.
On Monday, hours after capacity restrictions on bars, restaurants and other businesses went into effect, Health Minister Christian Dubé abruptly closed bars, gyms and schools.
Quebec is also counting on an accelerated vaccination campaign to slow the spread and protect people over 60, who account for 70 per cent of those in hospital, Legault said.
And he called on those who are not vaccinated against the virus to get the jab or stay home.
"You're putting yourself at much more risk by not being vaccinated and you're also putting our hospitals at risk," he said. "Less than 10 per cent of adults are not vaccinated, but they represent 50 per cent of people hospitalized."
While Quebec's public health institute said Tuesday the more transmissible Omicron variant is accounting for more than 80 per cent of new infections in the province, Dubé said the majority of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in Quebec have the Delta variant.
"We have not yet seen the Omicron effect," he said.
The Institut national de santé publique du Québec said Wednesday that the epidemiological situation in Quebec in December was ripe for spread of the Omicron variant: protection waned for those with two doses of vaccine; few people had received a third dose; and contacts increased after certain health measures were scaled back in November.
Dr. Eric Litvak said even with the measures and restrictions announced earlier this week and a push to get third doses in arms, it's impossible to rule out hospital capacity being overrun.
Litvak, the vice-president of scientific affairs at the institute, said in an interview that there remains uncertainty surrounding the severity of Omicron.
In South Africa, where the variant was first detected, cases have dropped noticeably in recent days. But it is possible that previous exposure to the Delta variant, which circulated much more widely in South Africa, has led to higher natural immunity. The South African population is also younger than Quebec's.
"It's still very early, and when you look at the global situation, the rapid rise of Omicron cases is still very recent. It's a matter of days," Litvak said.
"I think it's really too early to be able to reach any clear conclusions on how bad it might be in terms of hospitalizations, and the following seven, 10, 14 days are going to be extremely valuable to try to better understand that."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 22, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship
Sidhartha Banerjee and Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press