Beware of COVID variant sharks, Arruda warns
Highly contagious strains are more plentiful here than rest of Quebec
Quebec's mass vaccination campaign is off to a strong start, with the province's pharmacists poised to pitch in later this month, but the new and more contagious variants pose a serious threat in the Montreal region, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said Tuesday.
“At this time, we can have the impression things are going well but in reality there are two curves and it's misleading,” Dubé told reporters at the COVID-19 update in Montreal on Tuesday. “We have the curve of the old strain, the one we've seen going down every day, but underneath that is the curve of the U.K. strain that is going up.” So despite relatively low numbers of new confirmed COVID-19 cases, public health director Horacio Arruda indicated he is unlikely to recommend a relaxation of health measures any time soon, at least not for the Montreal region.
“We are right now in a period of calm seas, on a plateau without too many waves ... but underneath there are sharks, and those sharks are the variants,” Arruda said at a COVID -19 update in Montreal.
“These strains are much more contagious, and there are a lot more of them in the Montreal region than in the rest of Quebec,” he said. “If we let them explode, they will take over, and especially in regions like Montreal, we would experience a very quick increase in the number of cases, as happened in Britain and as happened elsewhere. So we can't fall asleep and relax the measures.”
The government was expected to announce changes to public health measures to take effect after the March break, but that announcement has been postponed until Wednesday as officials ponder the latest developments, Dubé said. On Tuesday, Quebec reported 588 new cases in the past 24 hours, and eight new deaths, bringing the province's death toll to 10,407. Hospitalizations were up by 16 to 628, with 121 people in intensive care.
The provincial public health laboratory is doing DNA sequencing on samples from all confirmed cases of COVID-19, to determine the presence of variants of concern. So far, 137 samples have been found to contain variants, and the majority of those were from residents of the Montreal region.
Almost all of the Montreal cases have been confirmed to be the variant that first emerged in the United Kingdom.
According to the Québec's public health institute (INSPQ), another 1,095 cases are assumed to be variants after screening, though they have yet to be confirmed through genetic sequencing.
Arruda said the public health department is now treating any outbreaks in schools as if they are caused by the variants. In other words, the more aggressive intervention that public health had been applying only when variants were suspected are now applied routinely in Montreal schools experiencing outbreaks.
“We isolate people more, we do tests quickly, we ask contacts of positive cases to stay at home, and even contacts of contacts of cases are being asked to isolate until we have the test results,” Arruda explained.
Dubé praised the teams running Quebec's mass vaccination program, which began in earnest on Monday, with close to 17,000 Quebecers getting a first shot. Although some problems arose, including elderly people waiting for more than an hour at some locations, improvements are being made.
He encouraged people to arrive no more than 10 minutes before their appointment time, because arriving early only causes crowding and delays. Those who show up without an appointment will not receive a shot, he added.
Dubé said the government and health agencies are working on a plan to get vaccines to seniors who cannot leave their homes. “If necessary, we will go to them.”
People are being assigned an appointment for a second dose as they receive their first, and Dubé asked, “Please be flexible . ... With 7 million appointments to make, times two, I ask you to accept the appointment that is given to you because it's a lot of logistics.”
Daniel Paré, director of Quebec's COVID -19 vaccination campaign, said his teams have added more wheelchairs, chairs and personnel to take questions in the welcome areas of the sites.
Dubé said he was pleased to announce that 350 pharmacy owners on the island of Montreal have agreed to join the vaccination effort two weeks earlier than planned. Eligible Montreal Island residents should be able to make appointments to receive their vaccine at their nearest pharmacy beginning on the week of March 15, he said.
All of Quebec's 1,400 pharmacies are expected to join the vaccination campaign by early April. By the end of this summer, pharmacies are expected to administer 2 million of Quebec's estimated total of 12 million doses.
The procedure for making an appointment at a pharmacy will be announced soon, Dubé said, but he stressed there is no point in contacting pharmacies now.
For now, appointments for residents of the Montreal region who are 70 or older can be made through the Clic Santé website (clicsante.ca) or phone number (1-877-644-4545).