Navigating changing plans and tough decisions in Quebec over the holidays

Many people and their families are scrambling to revisit holiday and travel plans as cases and hospitalizations have seen a sharp rise in recent days.

Experts recommend reducing gatherings and avoiding travel as cases soar — again

A nurse instructs a man how to use a COVID-19 rapid self test at a test clinic in Montreal, on Wednesday. Some experts say rapid tests can help make holiday gatherings safer. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

This holiday season is being filled with uncertainty and much of the decision-making in Quebec remains up to individuals and their families. 

The pandemic situation in the province is changing fast. Despite having told Quebecers only two weeks ago that he hoped more than 20 people would be able to gather, Premier François Legault admitted Wednesday morning that may have to change. 

In the meantime, many people and their families are scrambling to revisit holiday and travel plans as cases and hospitalizations have seen a sharp rise in recent days, and as the federal government is asking Canadians to avoid non-essential travel

"We need to be flexible and remember that the virus is also flexible," said Benoit Barbeau, a virologist in the department of biological sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

Rapid change and uncertainty can bring about difficult emotions and anxiety, and make it tough to navigate close contacts at a time when we want to be with our friends and families the most.

"These are concentrated, uncertain times, but at the end of the day, all our lives are uncertain," says Myrna Lashley, a psychologist and professor at McGill University. 

"What's happening is that people are getting frustrated. People are saying, 'I did everything you said [to do] and most people did.'"

For many, it can feel like the beginning of the pandemic all over again. As Sonia Bélanger, who oversees the COVID-19 response of Montreal's different health boards, said Wednesday, "we can all admit to a sense of déjà vue."

Gatherings and vaccination status

Lashley's advice for the holiday season is to stay pragmatic: keep your gathering small, know who is there and what their vaccination status is. In short, "protect yourself," respect your boundaries and don't compromise your safety to avoid conflict. 

"I don't care if it's your best friend Mary or Aunt Jenny, if they've decided that they don't want to be vaccinated, they can't come into my house," Lashley said. 

Psychologist and McGill University Professor Myrna Lashley recommends respecting your boundaries to prevent transmission this holiday season. (Naskademini)

"I might sound uncaring but I think that we have to start telling people, 'Look after you,' because that other person who decided not to get vaccinated, in their minds, they're looking after themselves."

Do avoid doomscrolling, though, she says. The practice of scrolling our phones social media feeds for all the bad news of the world, especially when pandemic cases are once again on the rise, can heighten anxiety. 

Maintaining a bond despite differences

Whether it's about vaccination status or simply group size, if you're having to exclude someone or decline an invitation, Rose-Marie Charest, another Montreal psychologist, recommends accepting the fact that it may take others some time to come around and understand your decision.

"We have to understand that there are people who will resist understanding our point of view," Charest said on Radio-Canada's Pénélope radio show.

"We have to respect differences, respect people's emotions and respect our well-being." Part of that is sometimes saying no, she added.

If it feels like a delicate relationship you'd like to preserve, Charest suggests reaching out, explaining that you want to maintain a bond. 

"You can say, 'I want us to have a connection during the holidays. How do you see it? This is what I'm thinking,' and then find some common ground," Charest said, suggesting an outdoor visit, a video call or delivering a portion of your holiday meal.

As anxiety-inducing as the current situation — and holidays in general — can be, Charest says people should find ways to have fun. "Joy is great for coping with anxiety," she said.

WATCH | Public health director asks Montrealers to reduce or cancel gatherings 

Public health director asks Montrealers to reduce or cancel gatherings

12 months ago
Duration 1:48
Dr. Mylène Drouin says we once again need to flatten a growing COVID-19 curve, and says she recognizes this may be an unwelcome sense of déjà vu for many.

Preventing transmission, even among vaccinated

Barbeau, the UQAM virologist, says revisiting holiday plans to make them safer should involve weighing risks.

Université du Québec à Montréal virologist Benoit Barbeau says Quebecers should limit their contacts over the holidays. (UQAM)

"It's all a question of probabilities. How much probability do I have of getting infected?" Barbeau said. "We need to limit as much as possible person-to-person contacts — those risks of transmission."

The virologist suggests smaller gatherings and a smaller number of gatherings, but he acknowledged the process can feel burdensome. 

"The simple answer is that there is so little that we know — at least for this variant — that it makes it very difficult to make the correct decision," Barbeau said. 

The Omicron variant is believed to more easily evade immunity than Delta and to be more infectious overall.

Though it could cause mild symptoms in healthy vaccinated people, it's unclear how severe an illness it can cause among the more vulnerable and unvaccinated, Barbeau said. 

He urged those who are eligible for a booster shot or third dose, to get one as soon as possible.

Barbeau also applauded the government making rapid tests available, though he called the move "overdue."

The tests may not be as efficient as a PCR molecular test, but are a good way to determine whether you may be infected or not before attending a gathering, especially if there are older people or people who have chronic diseases. 

With files from CBC Montreal's Radio Noon

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