'Suppressive' approach to variants making a difference: Montreal public health

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MONTREAL — A "suppressive" approach to controlling the spread of more transmissible coronavirus variants in Montreal has prevented a spike in COVID-19 cases involving those variants, the city's public health director said Wednesday.

Dr. Mylene Drouin said the more aggressive strategy explains the difference between Montreal, where the number of new COVID-19 cases has remained stable, and Ontario, where a government scientific advisory panel has said variants account for nearly half of all new cases and are driving a third wave of the pandemic.

In Montreal, Drouin told reporters Wednesday, the number of new cases has hit a plateau of about 325 for three weeks. The proportion of those cases involving variants has also levelled off at 20 per cent since Feb. 20.

The B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom, is the only variant of concern with community transmission in Montreal, she said.

"I think we're delaying the predominance of the U.K. variant, and when we compare to our neighbour from Ontario, we see they do not have this plateau, so we can see what would be the progression if we did not have a suppressive approach," she said.

That approach involves more extensive contact tracing for variant cases, she said. In addition, contacts that would normally be classified as "low risk" are deemed "moderate risk" when a variant is involved. That means they are asked to get tested and to self-isolate for 14 days.

"When we have a variant in a specific setting, a school, daycare or workplace, we identify more contacts, we do massive screening, and during this massive screening of contacts, we ask the people that live with those contacts to isolate themselves while we're waiting for the results of the tests," Drouin said.

Still, Drouin expects that the variant will become the predominant form of the virus being spread in Montreal within the next four weeks.

Montreal is the region of Quebec that has been hardest hit by the pandemic, and it has the majority of cases involving variants in the province.

Quebec's public health institute on Wednesday confirmed 19 more cases involving variants of concern in the province, for a total of 541, most of which involve B.1.1.7. It said it has detected 2,352 presumptive variant cases, an increase of 173. Montreal has had 327 of the confirmed cases and 1,094 of the suspected cases.

The variant is primarily spreading in neighbourhoods in the western part of the city, Drouin said. In those areas, it is being carried from schools and daycares to homes, where it infects parents, who can then transmit the virus in the workplace.

Quebec reported a sharp rise in the number of intensive care patients in COVID-19 wards Wednesday, up by 16 for a total of 107.

Health officials also reported 703 new cases of COVID-19 and 13 more deaths, none of which occurred in the past 24 hours. Total hospitalizations dropped by one, to 532.

The province says it administered 28,812 doses of vaccine Tuesday, for a total of 804,806. Quebec has reported 299,450 infections and 10,570 COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began and it currently has 6,833 active reported cases.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 17, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press