Omicron slowing in Quebec, after infecting close to 3 million with COVID-19

Public health experts in Quebec say that when they combine the people who are fully vaccinated and those who caught COVID during the Omicron wave, a high percentage of Quebecers have some kind of immunity. How long it might last is another question.

Need for masks expected to diminish, but not disappear yet

Quebec interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau says 'things are going in the right direction' but the Omicron wave isn't quite over. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Quebec's COVID-19 situation is improving and hospitalizations, which are now on par with the peak during the pandemic's second wave, are expected to slowly diminish, according to public health officials.

"Globally, the situation is better," the interim director of public health for Quebec, Dr. Luc Boileau, said Wednesday, noting that though there are still new cases of the virus every day, there has been a steady decrease in hospital and intensive care admissions.

Part of the reason infections are slowing is that so many Quebecers have already had COVID, most of them catching it during the fifth, Omicron wave. Boileau says the province now estimates three million Quebecers likely caught it.

Speaking at a news conference alongside Dr. Marie-France Raynault, a public health advisor, Boileau said those numbers were higher than expected and showed just how widespread the Omicron variant wave has been. 

"Things are heading in the right direction," Boileau said. "But this wave is not over," he added, urging people to remain cautious as Quebec continues to ease restrictions.

Boileau said a study shows that at least 30 per cent of children in Montreal have antibodies to the coronavirus, either because of vaccination or exposure to the virus. The highest level of antibodies — 97 per cent — is in teens age 12-17, the study shows.

Those results come from the testing of blood samples carried out at Montreal's Sainte-Justine children's hospital. 

Still, Boileau said Quebec isn't yet close to achieving herd immunity because of how easily the variant travels from person to person despite the presence antibodies, though previous infection and vaccines do prevent severe disease.

"The Omicron wave was stronger than expected," he said. Though another variant could take hold, Boileau said the province isn't expecting one anytime soon. He said public health experts are working on a plan to better prepare for that eventuality.

While wearing a mask remains a very effective way to prevent transmission, Raynault said the province is looking at a potential schedule for "de-escalating" the use of masks in some public spaces. They are likely to stick around on public transit for a while, though, she added. 

"We're hoping Quebecers will begin to adopt a 'breath etiquette' like in other cultures, where if you are experiencing respiratory symptoms, you don a mask when you go out," Raynault said.

WATCH | Quebec planning on changes, new medication to manage future waves:

Boileau says Quebec will be better prepared for future waves

4 months ago
Duration 1:59
Quebec's interim public health director, Dr. Luc Boileau, says the province is working on a plan to react to future waves and variants of COVID-19.

Removing masks in class will benefit kids: Boileau

Boileau said the antibodies study helps back up the decision Quebec Public Health announced Tuesday that many elementary and high school students will no longer have to wear masks in class when they return from March break, on March 7 or 14, depending on the region.

"We believe there are more benefits to removing masks for children than keeping them," Boileau said. 

Being able to visually interact with others' faces helps children engage at school and is helpful for children who struggle with speech, he said. 

Teachers have been able to remove their masks while at the front of the class, but must keep them on at other times. Children will be able to remove their masks while seated in class but must wear them in common areas and while walking around the class. 

Earlier Wednesday, Montreal Public Health Director Dr. Mylène Drouin said she supported the province's plan to allow elementary and high school students to remove their masks in the classroom. 

She said while students would likely be interacting with friends and family over the break, it did not necessarily mean this would lead to more transmission.

Drouin said while the 2020 March break helped set off the first wave of cases, the 2021 break actually slowed transmission in classes. 

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