As the fifth COVID-19 wave pummels Quebec, the province has decided to limit PCR tests to just a few priority groups. High demand for tests amid skyrocketing numbers of infections, officials said, was overwhelming testing sites. As a result, the general population has to rely on those rapid at-home tests available at pharmacies.
Now, the province is building a platform for Quebecers to self-report their results.
The Ministry of Health made the announcement Thursday, January 6, but didn't say when the platform will be up and running on Quebec.ca. In a press release, the ministry said it hopes the new tool will better enable officials to assess the province's positivity rate.
Public health and government officials have repeatedly warned that official daily reports have undercounted new COVID-19 cases since the advent of rapid at-home testing in Quebec.
"We have a worse visibility on the epidemiological situation," Health Minister Christian Dubé said on January 6. "But that's not to say we're blind."
The focus now is on the positivity rate, which Dubé implied has become a better indicator. Quebec reported a 31.2% positivity rate as of January 5, a level the minister said "had never been seen" in the province.
Quebec is also contending with an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations. On Wednesday, there were more new hospitalizations than ever before during the pandemic.
The latest projections from the Institut national d’excellence en santé et en services sociaux (INESSS) show that COVID-19 patients could occupy more than 3,000 hospital beds within the next two weeks, "well above [...] the thresholds observed during previous waves."
Dubé cautioned, however, that that forecast don't yet take into account the effects of the province's latest wave of health measures, including the nightly curfew.
Health measures in Quebec will not be changing in the immediate future, according to Premier François Legault. Despite a slowdown and, most recently, a slight decrease in hospitalizations, the situation is still too fragile to justify relaxing Quebec COVID-19 rules, he said.
"We seem to have reached the peak of hospitalizations today at last," he began in a press conference Thursday afternoon. "Yes, we can predict a decrease in hospitalizations soon, but for the moment we are at the worst of the pandemic with 3,400 hospitalizations."
Legault acknowledged Quebecers who are antsy for things to return to normal as soon as possible.
"You wouldn't believe the number of people who write to me, who call me, who talk to me, who tell me they're fed up, who would like the measures to be lifted," he said, reiterating that to do so now would significantly risk the chance of more infections and hospitalization throughout the province.
"We are at 3,400 hospitalizations and we are missing about 12,000 health care workers, so we cannot afford to relax the measures."
The latest numbers and projections offer at least some encouraging news.
Quebec reported 14 fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations on January 20 — the first decrease in weeks. The Institut national d'excellence en santé et en services sociaux (INESSS) also said Thursday that though the number of hospitalizations remains high, it appears to have plateaued after weeks of what the institute called "exponential growth."
In the next two weeks, the INESSS forecasts new hospitalizations will drop to 200 per day, down from 353 in the January 20 report. It also expects a "stabilization" in intensive care unit occupancy.
Total COVID-19 hospitalizations could decrease to 3,000 in the next few weeks, as well.
The INESSS cautions, however, that its projections don't take into account the reopening of elementary and high schools on January 17, a factor Legault said Thursday could "have a small effect" on infections.
In its January 20 report, Quebec reported a decrease in COVID-19 hospitalizations for the first time in weeks. There were a total of 3,411 COVID-19 hospital patients, 14 fewer than the day before. 285 people were in intensive care — that number remained unchanged.
The January 20 daily report comes as the Institut national d'excellence en santé et en services sociaux (INESSS) releases its latest hospital occupancy projections. The institute noted that though hospitalizations are still high, they seem to have plateaued between January 8 and 14.
In the next two weeks, the INESSS projects the number of new patients admitted to a hospital every day will drop to around 200 (Quebec reported 352 new hospitalizations on January 20). Total hospitalizations, meanwhile, will drop to "about 3,000," according to the forecast — "still well above the level 4 [occupancy level] recently defined by the Ministry of Health," the INESSS says.
The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care is also expected to stabilize.
The INESSS notes, however, that these projections don't take into account changes in health measures, nor the potential effects of the reopening of Quebec elementary and high schools on January 17.
The province also tallied 6,528 new COVID-19 cases on January 20, though official case counts are considered inaccurate since PCR tests are no longer available to the general public.
There were 98 more deaths linked to the disease.
Premier François Legault is set to hold a press conference Thursday afternoon alongside Health Minister Christian Dubé and interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau.
This article’s cover image was used for illustrative purposes only.
According to a new study conducted by Maru Public Opinion, 27% of Quebecers would approve of forcing the unvaccinated to "serve up to five days as part of a jail sentence for endangering others/overwhelming health care system," which is in line with the national average.
More than half of Quebecers (55%) surveyed wouldn't even feel bad for unvaccinated people who end up really sick — or dying — from COVID-19, also in line with the Canadian average. Currently, 12% of Quebecers surveyed admit to refusing the vaccine.
Maru contacted 1,506 Canadians — including 387 Quebecers — between January 14 and 15 for this survey. They note that "for comparison purposes, a probability sample of this size has an estimated margin of error (which measures sampling variability) of +/- 2.5%, 19 times out of 20."
The reasons cited in the study for avoiding the vaccine were varied, ranging from the understandable to the ludicrous. Civil liberty was a concern for many: 45% of unvaccinated Canadians claimed they are defending their right to make their own choices, and 22% say they just don't like the government telling them what to do.
Fear seems to be another strong motivator: 42% of unvaccinated Canadians claimed to be waiting for more data about the vaccine's safety, and 28% said they're anxious or scared of the effects the vaccine may have.
32% of unvaccinated Canadians, meanwhile, simply said that their immune system could beat the virus if they got it, so they don't need a vaccine.
Misinformation and conspiracy theories have also contributed to anti-vax sentiments. 21% said they're concerned that the vaccine will affect their genetic structure. 9% still think that COVID-19 is a hoax, while 7% believe the vaccine is just a ploy to keep drug companies rich and 4% think it's a global conspiracy to control those who get it. 3% think the vaccine will give them COVID-19.
Finally, only 1% of unvaccinated Canadians claimed it was against their religion to get the vaccine.
On the other end of the spectrum, 67% of Quebecers think that the vaccine should be mandatory, which is just above the national average of 66%. 78% of people in Quebec support the provincial government's decision to require a vaccine passport to enter the SAQ, the SQDC and large stores. And amid the controversy, 66% of Quebecers support an anti-vax tax.
The strain on our health care system remains a concern for Quebecers. 60% of respondents think the unvaccinated should pay out of pocket for any medical assistance they need due to COVID-19, and 35% believe the unvaccinated shouldn't be treated in public health care facilities at all.
"We need to be careful to not give more reasons to encourage these individuals to not respect the rules," said Dubé.
"It's not for nothing that we're talking about prioritization protocols for hospitals," he said, referring to the government's planning to deal with beds filled beyond capacity and staffing shortages caused by the Omicron wave. "The situation in hospitals, if people haven't understood, is we've reached the end of the line."
Last week, a handful of Montreal restaurants, including Kesté and Cafeteria Europa, announced that they would open on January 30 at full capacity. That plan is in protest of "arbitrary measures that have been proven not to be effective in solving the issue we are all faced with," according to an Instagram post.
But Dubé said things need to happen in a certain order.
"We have to take control of the situation, notably hospitals, before discussing reopenings," the health minister explained on Tuesday.
"At the same time, I want to say to those people that you have a reason to be upset," Dubé said. "We all have reason to be upset [...] but at the same time, it would be disappointing to let go [of rules] where there could be, in a few days, a stabilization of cases and eventually, a reduction. Before opening your restaurant, think about the workers in hospitals, where we're missing 12,000 workers."
Dubé declined to provide a timeline or a sense of what might reopen next when the government begins to remove restrictions, reiterating that the situation in hospitals needed to be under control first.
"I understand you're frustrated, but think about the workers and the health network [...] we want to reopen, but wait a little bit."