MONTREAL — Health experts and politicians are blaming a more virulent novel coronavirus variant and the public's waning adhesion to health orders for rapidly rising infections in three Quebec cities.
Quebec City reported 261 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday, the highest number of new daily cases in the provincial capital since December and a 35 per cent jump from the prior day.
Dr. Andre Dontigny, director of public health at Quebec City's regional health authority, said he expects the number of cases to rise rapidly.
"It's a situation that's exponential," he said Thursday.
Between 70 and 80 per cent of cases in the region involve more contagious variants, particularly the mutation first detected in United Kingdom, he said.
On Thursday, Quebec City, its southern suburb of Levis, and Gatineau moved into lockdown for at least ten days. Schools and non-essential businesses were forced to close and the nighttime curfew was advanced to 8 p.m. from 9:30 p.m.
Premier Francois Legault on Wednesday said the situation in those three cities was rapidly deteriorating. "We are very worried," he said.
Roxane Borges Da Silva, a public health professor at the Universite de Montreal, said she believes the government should have acted faster. She said there are a number of reasons for the rising number of new cases.
"We have the variant which is more contagious, we have people who don't follow the rules, or the restrictions, as well as before," she said in an interview Thursday.
Officials in the Quebec City area have linked an outbreak at a gym to more than 120 cases. Mathieu Boivin, a spokesman for the regional health authority, said at least 20 workplace outbreaks are linked to customers of the Mega Fitness Gym.
Quebec City Mayor Regis Labeaume condemned what he called the "totally irresponsible" ownership of the gym.
"Way to go champ," he said. "Everyone has nice biceps, but a lot of people are sick."
Dontigny said the gym is not the only cause of the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in Quebec City, adding that there about 70 outbreaks in the region.
"It's one element among others," he said about the gym, which he called a danger to the public.
For restaurants in Quebec City, which have been open for in-person dining for about three weeks, being forced to close with one day of warning is difficult, said Jason Aubut, the chef at Sinsemilla, a restaurant in Old Quebec.
"Everyone is full for the Easter weekend, everyone has invested an enormous amount of money for alcohol, food, employees, it's a bit of a catastrophe," he said.
He said he's lucky, however, because most of the ingredients the restaurant has purchased will freeze. Other restaurants could lose significant amounts of fresh food, he added.
In Gatineau, where cases have also increased rapidly, the situation is frustrating, said Mayor Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin. He said the region had done comparatively well to other parts of the province for most of the pandemic.
"It's difficult because we're maybe two months, 10 weeks, 12 weeks, from a situation where almost everyone was vaccinated," he said in an interview Thursday, adding that people expected things would continue to go well.
Pedneaud-Jobin said he believes the rise in cases is due to more aggressive variants and to people becoming less prudent after the city moved from red to the orange pandemic-alert level.
"I think the two things happened at the same time," he said. "It's like a perfect storm."
Earlier on Thursday, Quebec's public health ethics committee said the use of "immunity passports" — which would be issued to people who have been vaccinated — would be justifiable as a temporary measure that could permit a "faster return to normal life."
It said the economic and social benefits of immunity passports would be "slightly higher" than the impact on people's privacy and the inequalities that may be created.
Quebec reported 1,271 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, the highest daily number since late January. Health officials reported nine more deaths and said hospitalizations rose by two, to 487, and 119 people were in intensive care, a drop of one.
The province said it administered 41,406 doses of vaccine Wednesday for a total of 1,391,649; it said about 16.4 per cent of the population has received at least one dose.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 1, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press