MONTREAL — Concern over the rising number of cases of novel coronavirus mutations is splitting Quebec in two -- the greater Montreal area, where authorities fear COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations could soon explode, and everywhere else.
Premier Francois Legault said Wednesday he is maintaining restrictions in the Montreal area and two neighbouring regions and easing them in Quebec City and four other parts of the province starting Monday.
While Montrealers will continue to be forbidden to leave their homes after 8 p.m., residents of the provincial capital will soon be able to eat at restaurants and workout at the gym.
Health Minister Christian Dube said with the risk of variants, "we really have two different regions: greater Montreal and the rest of Quebec."
Projections indicate that by mid-April, "we could find ourselves again with 2,000 to 3,000 cases a day and (up to) 2,000 hospitalizations like we had in January," Dube said. The projections are to be released Thursday morning.
Legault asked Montrealers to be patient as officials try to get as many vulnerable people vaccinated as possible.
"Right now, we expect that over the next month, we'll be able to vaccinate vulnerable people — that's the timeline for now," he said, regarding how long residents of the city can expect to be in the highest pandemic-alert level.
"After the vulnerable people will be vaccinated it will be a totally new ball game."
Greater Montreal and the neighbouring Laurentians and Lanaudiere regions will not see any change in restrictions, Legault said, adding that public health officials told him "in the next weeks there will be an increase in cases and hospitalizations" due to the B.1.1.7. variant first identified in the United Kingdom, which is more contagious.
Officials reported 729 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday and 19 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including two that occurred in the previous 24 hours. Officials said hospitalizations dropped by 10, to 618, while the number of people in intensive care dropped by one, to 120.
The majority of the cases were in the areas that will remain at the highest pandemic-alert level. Montreal reported 338 new cases, followed by Monteregie with 87, Laval with 80 and Lanaudiere with 57. No other region in the province had more than 40 new cases. Of the 137 confirmed cases of variants in the province, 84 have been reported in Montreal.
Earlier Wednesday, Montreal's public health director said she expects the U.K. mutation to become the predominant form of the virus spreading in the city.
"We know it's going to happen," Dr. Mylene Drouin said.
She said 15 per cent of new cases in the city are linked to variants, up from 12 per cent last week. There are 43 outbreaks in schools linked to mutations, Drouin said, adding that most of those outbreaks are small. School-age children and their parents account for most of all new cases in the city.
While the number of new cases reported daily in Montreal remains stable, the spread of variants could change that, she said.
"We may be seeing a third wave in front of us."
For residents of Quebec City, Chaudiere-Appalaches, Mauricie, Estrie and Centre-du-Quebec, life will get slightly back to normal starting Monday. Aside from gyms and restaurant dining areas reopening, faith services will be able to welcome as many as 100 people at once. The nighttime curfew will be pushed back to 9:30 p.m.
Indoor private gatherings across the province remain banned.
Meanwhile, Quebec's statistics agency said Wednesday that life expectancy in Quebec dropped in 2020 due to an increase in deaths linked to the COVID-19 pandemic. For men in Quebec, average life expectancy dropped by five months, to 80.6 years. It dropped by eight months for women, to 84 years, the Institut de la statistique du Quebec reported.
Between 2019 and 2020, the number of deaths reported in Quebec rose by 10 per cent — or 6,750 fatalities. There were 74,550 deaths reported in the province in 2020. That's compared to an average rise in deaths of two per cent a year between 2010 and 2019 due to population growth and an aging population.
The agency says that during the same 10-year period, life expectancy rose by an average of 2.3 months a year for men and 1.5 months a year for women.
Health officials said 16,117 doses of vaccine were administered Tuesday, for a total of 472,710.
Quebec has 7,336 active reported infections, a total of 289,670 COVID-19 cases and 10,426 deaths linked to the virus.
Legault said Wednesday that health officials would wait up to four months before administering a second dose of vaccine, up from the current 90-day interval.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 3, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press