While the province is allowing for gatherings of up to 10 people until Sunday, public health authorities in the Quebec City area are calling on residents to think twice before sending out Christmas dinner invites.
"Being allowed does not necessarily mean that it's desirable," Dr. André Dontigny, public health director for the Capitale Nationale region, said in a news conference Thursday afternoon.
The Quebec City area — as well as Chaudière-Appalaches to its south — reported record numbers of COVID-19 cases Thursday with 671 and 566 new cases respectively.
Hospitalizations in both regions are also on the rise. Quebec City saw 16 COVID-19 patients in hospital Thursday – triple the number of patients in hospital at the start of the week.
The vast majority of those patients, the health authority says, are over 60 and unvaccinated.
The number of COVID-19 patients in the Chaudière-Appalaches has doubled since last week for a total of 15.
"It's always hard to know how this will evolve but clearly, the reason we are here today is we fear that if we're not careful, the rise can be catastrophic with major impacts on the health-care system," said Dontigny.
The Chaudière-Appalaches is once again one of the regions hardest hit by the pandemic, with a 15 per cent positivity rate and 696 active cases per 100,000 residents.
"The epidemiological situation is critical," said Dr. Liliana Romero, the region's public health director, adding the situation is particularly serious in Thetford Mines and Saint-Georges.
"Reducing your number of contacts and getting the vaccine are primordial right now. We need to do this now, and not in January."
Romero said the region's low vaccination rate and dependence on workplaces that do not allow for teleworking, such as factories and farms, are the main reasons case numbers are so high.
Health-care system is hitting a wall, ICU doctor warns
Dr. Stéphane Bergeron, director of professional services and medical affairs for the CHU de Québec-Université Laval, said the region's health-care system is being attacked on two fronts right now.
Not only is there a sharp increase in the number of patients requiring care, he says, but the new variant is so transmissible it is putting a strain on the already dire staffing situation.
"It is undeniable that, within the current context, there will be a reduction of hospital services and activities both on the north and south shores. The level to which we reduce those services will depend on the response you give today and tomorrow to COVID," he said.
Currently, 684 health-care workers in Quebec City and 277 in the Chaudière-Appalaches are on COVID-19 leave, either because they have tested positive for the virus or because they are in isolation.
"As a health professional on the frontlines of intensive care for the past 21 months, I have never felt the system was so fragile in the face of the demand to come," said Dr. Mathieu Simon, pulmonologist and head of the ICU at the Institut universitaire de cardiologie et de pneumologie de Québec.
"If you combine the increased amount of cases in the population and the reduction of available health-care workers, we are walking directly into a wall."
Significant delays in testing
All appointments for COVID-19 testing in the Quebec City area over the coming days have been booked.
With rapid test kits sometimes difficult to come by, the regional health authority is also urging anyone with symptoms to be patient and stay home.
"Be responsible. If you are sick to the point that you think you should have a screening test, don't go out. That's it. If you cannot obtain the test or the kit that is available in pharmacies, or was available in pharmacies, act as if you were positive," said Simon.
In a statement, the health authority said it's also dealing with a technical issue that is preventing it from opening up appointments for more days later in the week.
In the meantime, the health authority will be speaking with people who currently have appointments to make sure they have symptoms before being tested.
No need for state of emergency, mayor says
In a news conference earlier in the day, Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand stood by comments he made earlier this week, maintaining the city will not declare a state of emergency as Montreal did.
"We're totally not in the same [situation] as Montreal," Marchand repeated. "We have right now a plenitude of tools to work with in order to manage this crisis, in order to do the appropriate actions, in order to get out of this crisis."