A 16-year-old Quebecer died of complications from COVID-19 at a Montreal pediatric hospital last week. The teenager is the youngest person in the province to have died of the disease.
Montreal public health officials said Wednesday the death shouldn't cause undue concern about the safety of schools, and illustrated how the city has been successful at slowing the spread of more contagious versions of COVID-19.
"I would say to parents that schools are secure and there is more benefit for the development of our children to send them to school," said Dr. Mylène Drouin, who heads Montreal's public health authority.
Deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19 are extremely rare in teenagers and children. Only one other person under 20 years old has died of the disease in Quebec.
"The variants are more pathogenic and affect younger people. We've seen deaths before in younger people, but 16 is really very young," Drouin said.
The provincial public health research institute, the INSPQ, reports the death occurred Saturday. The Sainte-Justine pediatric hospital in Montreal released no other details about the patient, including whether they had contracted a variant.
"People who die at a young age of COVID-19 are generally people who have significant co-morbidities," a hospital spokesperson said in a statement confirming the death, which was first reported by the French-language television network TVA.
Stalling spread of variants
On Tuesday, the provincial government announced it was re-introducing a series of public health restrictions in the Montreal area with the goal of limiting hospitalizations from COVID-19 variants.
Among the measures that were re-introduced was having older high-school students attend class in-person on alternate days.
Drouin said that will facilitate efforts at preventing large outbreaks in schools. She noted that when variants began appearing in Montreal — it is B117 that is most prevalent in Quebec — there were several sizeable outbreaks.
But the city, in concert with provincial officials, has taken an aggressive approach to cases where variants are suspected in schools. The presence of one case is enough to shut a class. "We're seeing a lot smaller outbreaks now," Drouin said.
She also said Montrealers, in general, have been respecting public health measures and collaborating with contact tracing investigations. That's helped the city resist the spike in new infections that has hit other parts of the province, such as Quebec City and Gatineau, she said.
But that doesn't mean Montreal will be able to avoid another surge of cases and hospitalization altogether. Recent modelling by the INSPQ, Drouin said, indicates cases could rise significantly over the coming days, with hospitalizations following by the end of the month.
And though severe cases of the disease remain rare in teenagers and children, the variants are sending more people under the age of 60 to hospital.
"What all the doctors are telling us is that significantly more younger adults — people in their 40s and 50s — are ending up very sick in intensive care. And many of these people didn't have pre-existing conditions," said Sonia Bélanger, CEO of the health authority in south-central Montreal.