The province's vaccination rate is reason for optimism. The lower rate among younger people? Not so good.
The COVID-19 situation is suddenly getting intense again in various parts of Europe, with lockdowns imposed in Austria, tighter restrictions in Belgium and the Netherlands and hospitalizations and case numbers reaching crisis levels in Germany. So should we be expecting the worst for Montreal and Quebec? Will there be a fifth wave?
For now, the answer from experts is a qualified "probably not," for several reasons — and there are steps the public can take to help ensure that outcome.
Keep in mind that these are only predictions. New developments — like the new variant detected in South Africa — could change the game. As Montreal physician Christopher Labos observed, "it's going to be very hard to be definitive about the future, because as the old joke says, prediction is hard, especially when you're dealing with the future."
An upswing in Quebec's case count is expected this winter because of people spending more time inside and holiday gatherings increasing contacts, said Prativa Baral, an epidemiologist and doctoral candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
But Baral said she doesn't expect "generalized lockdowns," with localized responses to outbreaks more likely.
Nora Loreto, a journalist who has written extensively about the pandemic in Quebec, agreed.
Overall vaccination rates are high, so "if there's a region where pockets of unvaccinated individuals fuel a wave and whether that's committed unvaccinated individuals or children, it's possible we'll see restrictions brought back into those regions."
Loreto pointed to the current situation in Nunavik, where she said the active case count is extremely high, and the vaccination rate for citizens and healthcare workers is lower than the provincial average.
Why we can be hopeful
One of the reasons Quebec isn't likely to follow the path of Austria is the differing vaccination rates, the experts said. Austria is at around 66% of the total population, whereas Quebec is at 77% at the time of writing.
Furthermore, Austria "only just started implementing a vaccine pass in restaurants and bars in the past two weeks," Baral said.
"Whereas we've had these for a while which not only makes indoor spaces safer but also encourages vaccine uptake among the unvaccinated."
New vaccinations among adult Quebecers have slowed, but they haven't stopped, which Loreto said is good news. And vaccinating children five and over is also "a game-changer."
"I think that there's pretty much no path where a fifth wave is going to be as bad as, certainly not the first, probably not the second, probably not even the third."
There are still many concerns
Baral cites the lower vaccination rate among young people, who "also happens to be the most mobile, and are thus more likely to spread the virus around."
Even if our vaccination rate is higher than Austria, there are still a lot of unvaccinated people around, Baral said, and that means risks "to themselves, to spread the virus to vulnerable people, where the vaccine may not be as protective."
"As long as we have this large portion of the unvaccinated among us, surges in hospitalization, in particular, are inevitable," she said.
Labos explained that a sudden surge in hospitalizations could mean the need for harsher restrictions, given the dire staffing situation in the health care system. But that outcome isn't guaranteed.
Public health officials also need to carefully manage the public's expectations, he said, by loosening restrictions without going too far. "Things can get out of control relatively quickly, if we're not careful."
"If all of a sudden, everybody decides to stop wearing masks, and the winter comes, and the virus circulates, if the cases go high enough, that may lead to more and more hospitalizations. And if we have a very bad flu year, on top of COVID cases, and now you have people with both COVID and the flu landing in a hospital, well, the hospitals could become overwhelmed, especially given the worker shortage that we have."
What can you do?
It's pretty simple, Baral said.
"Don't want lockdowns? No one does! Get vaccinated, even if you are young and healthy; and please keep your mask on, especially in indoor crowded settings."
More rapid testing and programs to improve indoor ventilation are also essential, Baral said, and governments and institutions should prioritize these measures, and others, to make everyone safer.
Enjoying relaxed public health guidelines while sticking to some of the easy behaviours we've adopted over the pandemic will make a big difference, Loreto said.
"So even if the virus itself isn't in front of your mind, you're still putting on your mask, you're still sanitizing your hands, you're still doing things like that, that will protect you against the seasonal flu as well. And there's no harm in a lot of this stuff, which is great."
- Legault Says 'The Worst Is Behind Us' When It Comes To The ... ›
- Why Does Time Feel So Weird In Lockdown? A Montreal Expert ... ›
- 9 TikToks That Perfectly Capture Quebec Lockdown - MTL Blog ›