After a week of back and forth, Quebec signals its willingness to play according to the new rules set by the COVID variants
Just over a month ago, amid a lull in COVID-19 infection rates in Quebec, the province’s senior public health official, Dr. Horacio Arruda, used a colorful metaphor to describe the threat posed by more contagious variants of the virus.
“We are currently in a period of calm seas,” he said. “But underneath there are sharks, and these sharks are the variants.”
Despite the warning, the government has decided to allow swimming in these shark infested waters.
In the weeks that followed, the rules were relaxed across much of the province. The Quebec City region and the Outaouais are among the regions reclassified in the orange zone. Restaurant dining rooms and gymnasiums have been reopened. There was hope in the air.
Even in Montreal – a point of eternal difficulty – extracurricular school activities and large religious gatherings were once again permitted. Older high school students have been told to return to full-time in-person classes.
But on Tuesday, Prime Minister François Legault played the role of Chief Brody in the film. Jaws. Get out of the water, he told the province.
At a press conference in Montreal, he announced that he was canceling the small freedoms recently granted to residents of the greater Montreal area: gymnasiums will close, extracurriculars will cease, religious services will be capped at 25 people maximum.
Last week, he announced a series of tougher measures for the Quebec City region and the Outaouais, where cases have increased at an exponential rate.
Epidemiologists and other health experts had warned the government in March that it was making a high-chance bet by lifting the measures even if the variants were clearly gaining ground.
On March 26, the public health research institute, the INSPQ, stated bluntly that the provincial measures in place “were insufficient to control the variants.”
But Arruda, Legault and the Minister of Health Christian Dubé – the trio, as the French-speaking press calls it – insisted that the trips were justified because hospitalizations continued to decline at the same time as elderly Quebecers were vaccinated.
In an interview with La Presse last week, Arruda explained, with surprising frankness, the province’s strategy to a young journalist.
“If I have 2000 [new] case [a day] in Quebec, but we don’t have hospitalizations or major deaths, we can live with that, ”he says.
“Because the elderly are protected, of course we will have people your age who end up in intensive care and die, which is horrible. But is it better to shut it down and people break the rules in secret?”
Avoiding the fate of Ontario
Currently, Quebec records an average of 1,200 cases per day and, so far, hospitalizations have not returned to the critical levels observed around Christmas.
Legault said on Tuesday he hopes that by acting now, before hospital admissions rise rapidly, he can avoid the situation Ontario is facing, where intensive care units are reaching their capacity and many schools are about to get closer to in-person learning.
“It’s only a matter of days, or at most weeks,” he said, before the number of hospitals in Quebec begins to increase.
The new measures announced on Tuesday, as well as those introduced last week, bring more consistency to the government’s message. The added restrictions reflect the danger of a virus that has been turbo-charged by variants.
“It was the right thing to do. We had to be more proactive, ”said Dr. Cécile Tremblay, specialist in infectious diseases at the Université de Montréal health center, following Legault’s announcement.
“The models showed that we risked exponentially growing cases if we kept the measurements as they were before.”
WATCH | Quebec being “ proactive ” with new measures, says the specialist in infectious diseases:
But the abrupt pivot – from minimizing the dangers of Wave 3 to reimposing lockdown measures – has exposed the government to criticism that its approach to public health is haphazard. And there are signs that his credibility has been damaged.
On the one hand, the government faced protests last week in several schools in the Montreal area where students and parents wanted more, not less, public health measures in place.
On the other hand, his about-face caused lashes, bitterness and confusion in Quebec and the surrounding area. Over the weekend, police received more than double their usual number of calls regarding illegal gatherings.
The new rules
Legault did not admit he made a mistake in lifting the measures last month. “We will not help but offer freedom when we are able, or shut things down when necessary,” he said.
Throughout the pandemic, the Prime Minister made it clear that the government’s priority was to protect the health care system, rather than completely wiping out the virus (which was the stated goal of the Atlantic provinces. , for example).
Arruda’s comments to La Presse last week only showed what the tradeoffs are.
It’s a bargain that the public has deemed reasonable to date. Freedom has been maximized for the least vulnerable – school-aged children – and gradually reduced for the most vulnerable, especially the elderly.
WATCH | Young people struggling in grocery stores, cafes and restaurants feel the tension:
Some in long-term care homes were confined to their rooms for months as the virus circulated widely in the community. In turn, they were the first to jump in when vaccines became available.
But the most contagious variants of COVID-19 have shaken the terms of the market. Old methods of containing transmission are no longer enough to keep the virus from spreading like wildfire, and vaccines cannot be deployed quickly enough to keep young people from ending up in hospital.
With the measures announced over the past week, the Legault government has indicated that it is no longer just talking about these new realities of the pandemic – it has also started to adapt to them.