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Quebec brings back tough health measures as COVID-19 cases soar

Remote work, which before was recommended by authorities, is now mandatory


By Sidhartha Banerjee and Jacob Serebrin

MONTREAL — Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube announced tough new restrictions Monday in an effort to stem the rapid growth of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the province, and he warned further measures may come soon.

Dube called the situation “critical” as he announced that bars, movie theatres and other entertainment venues were to close as of 5 p.m. Monday. Restaurants will be allowed to operate at 50 per cent capacity but will be required to close by 10 p.m.

“With the increase of cases and hospitalizations, we must put in place new measures,” Dube told a virtual news conference, adding that half of the dedicated COVID-19 beds in the province’s hospitals are now occupied.

He urged Quebecers not to get discouraged and to stay strong. “We are eight million people in Quebec, and we are at war,” he said. “It is war right now against the virus.”

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He said the arrival of the Omicron variant has completely changed the game in the past week. Vaccines that offered 70 per cent protection against symptomatic infection from the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus are believed to offer only 30 per cent protection against Omicron, he said.

The province’s elementary schools and high schools will close effective Tuesday, with in-person learning scheduled to resume Jan. 10, but schools will remain accessible until the holiday break for vaccinations or distributing rapid tests to students.

Spectators will not be permitted to attend professional or amateur sporting events, and gyms and spas will also shutter. Remote work, which before was recommended by authorities, is now mandatory.

The new measures came hours after previously announced restrictions took effect that included reducing capacity by half in bars, restaurants, retail stores, places of worship and entertainment venues.

Asked if the province should have announced additional restrictions last week, Dube said the situation is changing rapidly.

“We’re doing the best every day to adjust,” he said. He added that more restrictions may come soon.

“I’m warning all Quebecers, tonight we’re having a meeting with our experts and we’ll have additional information, and based on that additional information, we’ll make, again, tough decisions,” he said.

The Monday evening briefing was to include projections for virus spread in the province that incorporate new research about the Omicron variant. “To be honest, they will probably not be encouraging,” he said.

Plans are also being made in hospitals, Dube said, to postpone non-urgent surgeries and other procedures to free up staff to treat COVID-19 patients.

For the moment, Dube said, private gatherings of up to 10 people remain allowed, but he encouraged people who plan to see their friends and family over the holidays to gather in the smallest groups possible, and he warned that the limit could be reduced.

Quebec reported 4,571 COVID-19 cases Monday, the most since the beginning of the pandemic. The province analyzed more than 45,000 tests on Sunday, with 10.1 per cent of them coming back positive for COVID-19.

Quebec’s testing resources are now at capacity, Dube said, adding that anyone testing positive is being asked to notify people with whom they have been in contact, as contact-tracing staff are overwhelmed.

Along with the new restrictions, Quebec is continuing to expand access to third doses of COVID-19 vaccines, opening up booster shots to people 65 and over on Monday, as well as family caregivers of people who live in long-term care centres and first responders.

While the province plans to administer booster shots to all adults, Daniel Pare, the head of Quebec’s vaccination campaign, said he didn’t have a timeline for when people under 60 would be able to get their third dose, saying only it would happen “as soon as possible” and that the province still needs more vaccinators.

Earlier in the day, Quebec began distributing rapid COVID-19 tests to the general public. However, some Montreal pharmacies were out of tests within an hour of opening. Pare said more tests will be distributed as they are received from the federal government.

The Health Department reported three more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus and said 21 more people entered hospital, bringing total hospitalizations to 397. There were 82 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, an increase of three.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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