"Beggars can't be choosers" seems to be the government's approach to mandatory vaccinations for health care workers. Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé announced Wednesday that the province will let unvaccinated health sector employees continue to work after November 15 — the date by which workers were supposed to be adequately vaccinated or face suspension.
That was already an extension. The original deadline for health and social service workers to get their COVID-19 vaccine was October 15.
97% des 290K TdS sur le terrain sont vaccin\u00e9s.\n\nSe priver de 8K personnes dans notre r\u00e9seau d\u00e9j\u00e0 fragilis\u00e9 aurait eu des cons\u00e9quences d\u00e9vastatrices, selon les sc\u00e9narios potentiels des PDG. La sant\u00e9 publique a donc m\u00e0j sa recommandation sur la vaccination obligatoire des TdS.pic.twitter.com/bPSZs30mXh
— Christian Dub\u00e9 (@Christian Dub\u00e9)
In a press release, the ministry said the decision followed an evaluation that found "the maintenance of essential services" could "not be ensured" in the case of the "withdrawal of unvaccinated workers."
As of November 3, according to the release, 14,000 workers aren't fully vaccinated, according to the release.
Instead, the government is enforcing three-times-weekly COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated workers and will carry out reassignments — "when possible" — of these employees to "areas with less vulnerable clientele."
In addition, the Ministry of Health says "no worker presenting symptoms should come to the care environment."
Unvaccinated health workers will also not be eligible for previously announced pandemic and retention bonuses.
Non-Canadian travellers who have been to southern Africa — specifically, South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, or Namibia — in the last 14 days are no longer allowed to enter the country.
Nous prenons des mesures concr\u00e8tes concernant le nouveau variant en Afrique du Sud. 1/2
Canadian citizens and permanent residents who have been to these countries in the past 14 days will "be subject to enhanced testing, screening, and quarantine measures."
Regardless of vaccination status, these individuals will be required to show proof of a negative COVID-19 molecular test taken in a third country within 72 hours of departure before they can continue their journey to Canada.
Upon arrival, these travellers will have to take another PCR test and quarantine for 14 days, regardless of vaccination status or test results. They will then be retested on their eighth day in Canada.
It should be noted that there are currently no more direct flights between Canada and southern African countries.
"Today's measures, including new requirements for third-country pre-departure testing for travellers coming to Canada from certain southern African countries, are being put in place to prevent new variants of the COVID-19 virus from being introduced and spread in Canada," said Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra in a statement.
The Government of Canada is asking Canadians to avoid travelling to southern Africa.
The European Union, the United States and the United Kingdom have imposed similar restrictions to limit the spread of the new variant, according to a Health Canada press release.
This article’s cover image was used for illustrative purposes only.
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."
Make some room in your wallet. 3.3 million Quebecers are about to get some extra cash. On Thursday, Finance Minister Eric Girard announced an "exceptional" new Quebec benefit program that will give $275 to single residents and $400 to couples who qualify for the solidarity tax credit.
The government's goal is to help middle and low-income Quebecers with a cost of living that's ballooning as the global economy recovers from the pandemic.
"The Quebec economy is currently experiencing an exceptional recovery thanks to the mobilization of Quebecers and a successful vaccination campaign," the minister said in a statement.
"The significant improvement in public finances allows us to help Quebecers cope with the cost of living and to take action to accelerate economic growth by addressing labour shortages and stimulating business productivity."
The benefit is part of a larger investment package that also includes money to help address the province's labour shortage, increase the refundable tax credit for child care expenses, create 37,000 new subsidized child care spaces and reduce the province's waitlist of surgeries.
Perhaps of particular interest to young Quebecers are scholarships that are part of the plan to address the labour shortage. University students in a three-year program in "health and social services, education, early childhood education and care, engineering, information technology, or construction" will be eligible to receive a $15,000 scholarship.
The scholarship increases to $20,000 for people in a four-year program. College students in similar programs will be eligible to receive $9,000.
Several factors determine eligibility for Quebec's solidarity tax credit, which aims to compensate for "the regressive nature of certain taxes," according to a document from the Ministry of Finance.
The credit is divided into three parts:
a "component relating to the Quebec sales tax (QST);"
a "housing component;"
and a "component relating to residence on the territory of a northern village."
The ministry explains that the income cap for the first component is $50,645 for a person living alone and $55,912 for a couple.
The Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable, a coalition of representatives from those industries, along with other industry leaders in Quebec released a statement calling on the federal government to stop requiring fully vaccinated travellers to get PCR tests before re-entering Canada — regardless of how long they've been out of the country.
"The PCR test is a major barrier for middle-class families hoping to travel to Quebec," said Luzana Rada, chief executive officer at Global Tourisme. "As one of the largest travel agencies in Quebec, I have seen firsthand the rising number of cancellations as a result of the pre-departure PCR test. Families simply aren't travelling to Canada. The cost and inconvenience are too high."
The statement also says that the new 72-hour rule gives Canadians the ability to leave the country with fewer headaches, yet discourages foreign visitors from exploring all that Canada and Quebec have to offer.
"In fact, the new policy makes Canada's travel rules more confusing and as costly," said Deputy Director of Croisières AML Lucie Charland.
According to the group, one of the biggest issues the travel and tourism sector has faced is the lack of international visitors during historically "world-renowned events," such as the Carnaval de Quebec and Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament.
Quebec's economy has benefited from the tournament's prestige, the statement says, as it attracts participants from all over the world. It also helps to develop young players with 1,315 participants going on to get drafted onto NHL teams.
"From Guy Lafleur to Wayne Gretzky, Patrick Roy and Connor McDavid, several of hockey's greats have played in our tournament," said Patrick Dom, general manager of the tournament.
"Many international teams have canceled their participation as a direct result of the overly restrictive policies in Canada that do not align with the government's own expert recommendations."
Quebec's tourism industry supports 402,000 jobs and more than 30,159 businesses, the statement says.