Health minister urges Quebecers not to panic as COVID-19 cases soar

All Quebec preschool and elementary school students are expected to be sent home with a rapid COVID-19 testing kit in the next two weeks as the province's caseload hits a new high.

Province plans to distribute rapid screening tests to all elementary schools

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé says the province is exactly where it should be with respect to the projections of COVID-19 case numbers. He's urging Quebecers not to panic as numbers climb. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada)

Quebec's health minister is urging people not to panic even though the province recorded the highest number of new COVID-19 cases since mid-January on Thursday.

"We're exactly where we should be," Christian Dubé told reporters at a Thursday scrum at the National Assembly. 

"We were expecting this … an increase of cases, but relative stability in the number of hospitalizations. So I think we're OK so far." 

Dubé noted the majority of the 1,807 new cases identified Thursday are among unvaccinated people and children, who, in some cases, transmitted the virus to their parents. 

The number of cases in Quebec increased sharply by 29 per cent compared to last week, according to INESSS, a government health-care research institute known by its French acronym.

The number of new hospitalizations could increase across the province in the coming weeks, INESSS said in a projections report released Thursday.

Still, compared to the second wave of the pandemic, the report revealed hospitalizations are down 81 per cent.

For the past two months, the proportion of cases requiring hospitalization has been declining, according to INESSS, due in part to the increase in cases among children, who are less likely to require hospitalization if they contract COVID-19. 

Despite the stable number of hospitalizations, experts say Quebecers shouldn't let their guard down when meeting others in person. 

"Knowing that [health-care workers are] short-staffed and tired, the impact of an increase of COVID hospitalizations and ICU occupancy rate might take a toll on the system out of proportion to the actual number," Dr. Joseph Dahine, an intensive care specialist at Cité de la Santé hospital in Laval, said. 

WATCH | Some of the factors that may have contributed to spike in cases in Quebec: 

What's driving Quebec's COVID-19 surge?

1 year ago
Duration 5:30
Montreal infectious diseases physician Dr. Matthew Oughton discusses the circumstances behind Quebec's report of more than 1,800 new COVID-19 infections, the province's highest daily numbers since January.

With the government easing gathering restrictions in time for the holidays, Gilbert Boucher, head of Quebec's association of emergency medicine specialists, says we need to remember that last year was "very chaotic for everyone in the health-care system." 

"We need to be careful because the virus is out there among the little ones. And if we're not careful, we will reach the 2,000 [cases] and above number for sure." 

Over the past 24 hours, 13 more people were hospitalized with the virus, bringing the total to 255 people in hospital across Quebec. People aged 70 and over currently represent 35 per cent of hospitalizations. 

Dubé said he is closely following this increase, adding he "doesn't like" to see any rise in hospitalizations.

The health minister is calling on people who are not vaccinated to get their shots now, and urged those eligible for the third dose to get it, if it has been six months since their second.

Rapid tests for Quebec kids

The spike in cases comes the same day Quebec's Health Ministry announced that all preschool and elementary school students will be receiving rapid COVID-19 screening tests that can be used at home. 

Starting this week, tests will be distributed to school boards and service centres in Montreal, the Eastern Townships, Chaudière-Appalaches, Lanaudière, the Montérégie and the Laurentians  — regions where the epidemiological situation is "more worrisome," according to the Health Ministry. 

"First, they will be available for kids at the primary level," said Dubé. The government expects 325,000 children to be sent home with a kit within the next two weeks, he said, explaining that "those tests should be used only when you have symptoms."

As the holidays approach, each student will be given a kit in their school bag that includes five tests, as well as the materials and instructions for performing them. Rapid tests, which provide results in as little as 15 minutes, may be used for children who have any symptoms similar to those of COVID-19.

"We want to go more and more toward the self-test," Dubé said.

Distribution will be carried out by the Health Ministry and will take place gradually. Other regions will receive the tests starting the week of Dec. 13. 

Since rapid tests are deemed to be less reliable than those used in the laboratory, in the event that a child tests positive, parents must make an appointment to have the diagnosis confirmed at a screening centre.

Still, Dr. Karl Weiss, head of infectious diseases at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, welcomes their availability in schools as an additional tool to prevent the virus from spreading between children and their families. 

"If you do serial rapid testing, you test people in school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you will find some cases eventually and you will break some transmission," he said. 

"It's not a perfect tool, but it's an additional tool to fight this infection and try to keep the society open as much as possible." 

While Dubé also said the tests are useful and will have an impact on bringing down COVID-19 cases in the province, he said vaccination is still the best way to slow the spread of the virus.

He said he expects the situation to stabilize when more children aged five to 11 are vaccinated.

The province says it plans to distribute almost three million rapid tests in the next two weeks. Many will go to daycares or businesses trying to avoid outbreaks among workers. 

With files from Alison Northcott, Justin Hayward, Cathy Senay and Lauren McCallum