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Quebec must learn lesson from virus variants before they take over province: expert

MONTREAL — As Quebec reported a spike in COVID-19 infections on Thursday, one public health expert said she hopes authorities are taking lessons from how variants have impacted other areas before they take over in the province.

MONTREAL — As Quebec reported a spike in COVID-19 infections on Thursday, one public health expert said she hopes authorities are taking lessons from how variants have impacted other areas before they take over in the province.

Quebec reported 945 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, well above the 734-case seven-day average of the past week.

Roxane Borges Da Silva said she's concerned Quebec officials aren't paying proper attention to what's happening elsewhere with the more transmissible variants.

"In a certain way, we are lucky to have the experience of other countries and provinces about the variants," Borges Da Silva, public health professor at Universite de Montreal, said in an interview.

Given how the situation has unfolded in places like Germany and France and neighbouring Ontario, she said she's worried about the province's plan to let up on some of the strict rules in place. "I don't think it was the right moment to relax more and open up some of the measures," she said.

On Friday, gyms will reopen across the province and places of worship will be permitted to welcome up to 250 people indoors.

Borges Da Silva said of particular concern to her is the government allowing older high school students in the province's red zones to return to class full time next week, calling the decision "incoherent" given the more transmissible variants.

"They will bring it back at home," she said. "I don't think we can resolve to have more contamination and bringing back students full time will mean increased contacts and potentially more transmission."

In Montreal, public health officials have said the pattern has seen children infecting parents who then bring it back to the workplace. In two neighbourhoods hardest hit by variant cases, officials have been vaccinating parents, teachers and educators at schools and daycares as part of a pilot project.

Quebec has 704 confirmed variant cases from four strains — about 594 of those involve the B.1.1.7 mutation first detected in the United Kingdom.

On Wednesday, the province reported its two first cases of the B.1.525 variant that emerged first in Nigeria. The province has reported 107 cases of the B.1.351 mutation from South Africa and one case of the P.1 variant from Brazil.

The province also has 3,978 presumptive cases of variants.

Borges Da Silva said her concern is for those between the ages of 20 and 60 who won't have been vaccinated, but could have risk factors that would require hospitalization or long-haul COVID-19 symptoms.

"We can't take the variants lightly, especially given the international experience, to not get caught like other countries or like Ontario," she said.

In addition to nearly a thousand new COVID-19 infections, the province reported four more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus on Thursday. Hospitalizations dropped by 12, to 496, and 117 people were in intensive care, a drop of one. 

Health Minister Christian Dube urged Quebecers to stay vigilant while vaccinations continue. "We are seeing an increase in cases," Dube wrote on Twitter. "What we are watching closely also is the impact it will have on our hospitals in a few days."

Meanwhile, the Health Department confirmed Thursday that Quebecers who've had a confirmed COVID-19 infection will only need a single dose of vaccine, which will act as an immunity booster.

Health officials said the province's immunization committee and its public health institute have concluded a single shot is sufficient because previously infected patients have built up an immunity during infection.

The Health Department said new scientific data shows an excellent immune response with just one dose for these people, but immunosuppressed people with a previous COVID-19 infection should get both doses of the vaccine.

The province administered 39,814 doses of vaccine Wednesday, for a total of 1,065,823 since the COVID-19 vaccination campaign began, representing about 12.6 per cent of the population.

On Friday, Premier Francois Legault is scheduled to be vaccinated in Montreal.

Quebec has reported a total of 305,435 COVID-19 cases and 10,630 deaths linked to the virus. The province has 7,173 active reported infections. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 25, 2021.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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