MONTREAL — Quebec reported a sharp jump in COVID-19-related hospitalizations over the weekend, with Sunday's provincial figures documenting a new all-time high since the onset of the global pandemic.
The province has seen more than 2,000 people in hospitals in recent days, but logged a notable spike over the past 24 hours. Hospitalizations climbed by 140 provincewide and now stand at 2,436.
At the beginning of the pandemic's first wave in March 2020, in comparison, provincial public health data showed virus-related hospitalizations peaked at 1,866.
Epidemiologist and cardiologist Dr. Christopher Labos said the rapid increase in hospital admissions validates previous public messaging about the high transmissibility of the virus's Omicron variant.
"You had a lot of people claiming that the Omicron variant was going to be less severe, but even if it does have a slightly lower hospitalization rate compared to the previous variant, the mere fact that it’s more infectious means that more people get sick and end up in hospitals," Labos said in an interview. "We are seeing the proof of that right now."
Labos advised against interpreting the numbers as a sign vaccination is ineffective, noting he's seen suspicion mount in some circles.
"The reality is that if we didn’t have the vaccine, we’d be talking not about thousands but maybe over 10 thousand people in hospitals," he said, noting those without COVID-19 immunization are up to 7.4 times more likely to be hospitalized due to the virus.
"A lot of people thought by getting vaccinated, COVID would go away," he said.
"Unfortunately, diseases don’t work that way and don’t stick to our timetable. A new variant emerged that is much more infectious than anything that came before. We have two options, we either rise to the challenge and do what’s necessary to prevent the loss of human lives and protect the health-care system, or we do nothing and let people die."
The critical situation is forcing hospitals in Quebec's Laurentians region to transfer some patients to long-term care homes, commonly referred to in French by the acronym CHSLD, in order to free up scarce patient beds.
Hugo Morissette, a spokesman for the region's public health authority, confirmed in a statement that double rooms have been adapted in 12 long-term care facilities in order to support discharged patients who no longer require hospitalization.
But Morisette said the homes are only accepting patients who tested negative for COVID-19.
"Although we are confident that this decision does not endanger the residents of our CHSLDs, it was taken after the implementation of several other measures aimed at reducing the pressure on our hospitals, and therefore was not our first choice," Morissette said.
He said new patients must isolate between five to 10 days upon their arrival.
The measure, however, was criticized by one of the province's opposition parties, fearing it will lead to catastrophic death tolls similar to what long-term care homes experienced during the pandemic's earlier waves.
Parti Québécois Opposition Critic for Seniors Lorraine Richard said in a statement the decision risks overloading the system and endangering the quality of services given to elders.
"It seems the government has not learned a lesson from the first wave at all," Richard said on Sunday. "We make the same mistakes again by overloading the CHSLDs as if we had not seen the consequences of such a decision."
Almost 4,000 people died in long-term care homes between February and June 2020, accounting for nearly 70 per cent of the deaths reported in Quebec during the first wave. A months-long investigation has been examining the deaths of elderly and vulnerable people in residential settings during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Led by coroner Gehane Kamel, the inquest is limited to events that took place between March 12 and May 1, at the height of the crisis in 2020.
The inquest is set to resume on Monday, with the much-anticipated testimony of Seniors Minister Marguerite Blais.
Meanwhile, the province logged 23 more virus-related deaths on Sunday, a figure that dropped nearly 50 per cent from the 44 reported the day before.
The provincial health department said 257 patients are currently in intensive care, an increase of 12 from the previous day.
It also said 19.7 per cent of the 51,374 COVID-19 tests processed in the last 24 hours came back positive.
The province reported 11,007 new cases of COVID-19.
Authorities said 73,000 doses of vaccine were administered in the past 24 hours, including 66,679 third doses.
Residents 40 and over are eligible to book an appointment for their third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine starting on Monday as the province continues to roll out booster shots to its general population.
-With files from Clara Descurninges
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2022.
Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press