After per week forwards and backwards, Quebec alerts its willingness to play based on new guidelines set by COVID variants
Just over a month ago, amid a lull in COVID-19 infection rates in Quebec, provincial public health officer Dr. Horacio Arruda, a colorful metaphor to describe the threat posed by more contagious variants of the virus.
“We are currently in a phase of calm seas,” he said. “But among them are sharks, and these sharks are the variants.”
Despite the warning, the government decided to allow swimming in these shark-infested waters.
In the weeks that followed, the rules were relaxed in large parts of the province. The Quebec City area and the Outaouais were among the regions reclassified as Orange Zones. Dining rooms and gyms have reopened. There was hope in the air.
Even in Montreal – a constant hot spot – extracurricular school activities and large religious gatherings were once again allowed. Older high school students were told to return to full-time classes.
But on Tuesday, Premier François Legault played the role of Chief Brody in the film Jaws. Get out of the water, he told the province.
Quebec Public Health Director Horacio Arruda answers a question during Tuesday’s press conference in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson / The Canadian Press)
At a press conference in Montreal, he announced that he would end the small freedoms recently granted to residents of the greater Montreal area: gyms will be closed, extracurricular courses will be suspended, religious services will be limited to a maximum of 25 people.
Last week he announced a series of tougher measures for the Quebec City area and the Outaouais, where cases have grown exponentially.
Control of the variants
Epidemiologists and other health experts warned the government in March that there was a high probability that the measures would be lifted, even though the variants were clearly gaining ground.
The normally staid public health research institute INSPQ said bluntly on March 26 that the provincial measures in place were “insufficient to control the variants.”
But Arruda, Legault and Health Minister Christian Dubé – le trio, as the francophone press calls them – insisted the moves were justified, as hospital admissions continued to decline at the same time as older Quebecers were being vaccinated.
In an interview with La Presse last week, Arruda explained the province’s strategy to a younger journalist with surprising frankness.
“When I have 2000 [new] cases [a day] in Quebec, but we have no significant hospital admissions or deaths so we can live with that, “he said.
“Because older people are protected, of course we will have people your age who end up in intensive care and die, which is terrible. But is it better if you shut everything down and people secretly break the rules?”
Avoid Ontario’s fate
Quebec currently has an average of 1,200 cases per day, and so far, hospital admissions have not returned to the critical levels seen around Christmas.
Legault said Tuesday that he hopes that by taking action now before hospital admissions spike quickly, he can avoid the situation in Ontario where intensive care units will be at full capacity and many schools will shut down face-to-face classes.
“It’s a matter of days or weeks at most,” he said before Quebec hospital numbers begin to skyrocket.
The new measures announced on Tuesday, together with those introduced last week, bring more coherence to the government’s message. The additional restrictions reflect the risk of a variant-loaded virus.
“It was the right thing. We had to be more proactive,” said Dr. Cécile Tremblay, Infectious Disease Specialist at the Université de Montréal Health Center, following the Legault announcement.
“The models have shown that in cases we risk exponential growth if we continue to operate as before.”
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But the abrupt swing – from belittling the dangers of the third wave to re-imposing lockdown measures – has left the government under criticism for being arbitrary in its approach to public health. And there are signs that its credibility is damaged.
On the one hand, the government faced protests in several schools in the Montreal area last week, with students and parents calling for more, not less, public health action.
On the other hand, his flip-flop caused whiplash, bitterness, and confusion in and around Quebec City. Over the weekend, the police there received more than double their usual number of calls about illegal gatherings.
The new rules
Legault wasn’t going to admit that he made a mistake last month in lifting the measures. “We’re not going to hold ourselves back from granting freedoms when we are able to, or closing things back when necessary,” he said.
Throughout the pandemic, the Prime Minister has made it clear that the government’s priority is to protect the health network rather than completely eliminating the virus (which, for example, was the stated aim of the Atlantic provinces).
Arruda’s comments to La Presse last week only made it clear what the compromises are.
It’s a bargain that the public so far thought was reasonable. Freedom has been maximized for the least at risk – school age children – and gradually restricted for the most vulnerable, especially the elderly.
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Some in long-term care homes were effectively locked in their rooms for months as the virus was widespread in the community. In turn, they were the first when vaccines became available.
But the more contagious varieties of COVID-19 have turned the terms of the deal upside down. The old ways of containing transmission are no longer enough to prevent the virus from spreading like wildfire, and vaccines cannot be introduced quickly enough to prevent younger people from ending up in the hospital.
With the measures announced last week, the Legault government signaled that it is no longer just talking about these new realities of the pandemic – it has also begun to adjust to it.