Montreal health officials racing to delay dominance of U.K. variant to April

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Montreal health officials say with aggressive contact tracing and mass COVID-19 testing, they hope to delay a more contagious novel coronavirus variant from becoming dominant in the city until April.

Dr. Mylene Drouin, head of public health in Montreal, says it's only a matter of time before the B.1.1.7 variant — first detected in the United Kingdom — takes over in Quebec's largest city.

"Knowing that the variant is more transmissible than the current virus that's circulating ... it's going to take the place of the virus that is circulating," Drouin told reporters Wednesday. "In our case, we think if we do our tracing well enough and we have the same compliance of the population of public health measures, we could delay until April."

Community transmission remains strong in Montreal, with about 350 to 400 infections a day, Drouin said, adding that eight to 10 per cent of infections in the city are being identified as suspected cases of the U.K. mutation.

Authorities, she said, have contained 22 outbreaks linked to the variant since January, mainly in schools and daycares, through intensive and aggressive contact tracing and mass testing.

Drouin said some modelling suggests if the public adheres strictly to health orders, the Montreal area could put off the U.K. variant becoming dominant until early spring. In the meantime, she said, the goal is to get as many people 70 years old and older a dose of vaccine.

Starting Thursday, Quebec residents 85 years old and older can register for vaccination appointments, which will begin next week in the Montreal region. The city expects to receive 75,000 doses of vaccine next week.

"This vaccination of the most vulnerable population is going to help us protect them from the most severe form of the disease," Drouin said.

Across the province, the number of suspected cases of coronavirus variants identified through screening jumped by 118, to 602; the number of confirmed cases remained unchanged at 23 — 19 of them in Montreal.

With the province's March break coming up next week, Drouin urged people to keep to their family bubbles and apply COVID-19 public health rules, such as physical distancing.

Quebec reported 806 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and a sharp increase in the number of patients in intensive care. Health officials said hospitalizations dropped by 25, to 655, but the number of intensive care patients jumped by 10, for a total of 130. They reported 17 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including five that occurred in the past 24 hours.

A total of 8,807 doses of COVID-19 vaccine were given on Tuesday, for a total of 376,910 since the campaign began. About 3.9 per cent of Quebec's population has received a first dose.

The province has reported a total of 284,472 infections and 10,346 deaths linked to the virus. There are 7,988 active reported COVID-19 cases in Quebec.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2021.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press