Montreal

COVID-19 in Quebec: Arruda promises more 'aggressive' testing as province reopens

Quebec's director of public health says the province is planning to conduct 14,000 tests a day, up from roughly 6,000. Experts question whether the new measures go far enough.

Director of public health says province plans to conduct 14,000 tests daily, up from 6,000 now

A man gets hand sanitizer before being tested at a COVID-19 testing clinic Friday in Montréal-Nord, the district that's been hardest hit by COVID-19 on the island of Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The latest:

  • Quebec has 28,648 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 2,022 people have died. That's an increase of 163 deaths, with previously unrecorded April deaths factored in.
  • There are 1,716 people in hospital, including 218 in intensive care. Here's a guide to the numbers.
  • Public health officials confirm a third patient attendant has died — an employee at Manoir Cartierville in north-end Montreal.
  • More hospital outbreaks have been confirmed, including at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital.
  • Daycare and elementary school open May 11 in most of the province, and a week later in the Montreal area.

Quebec's director of public health says the province is launching a more "aggressive" testing strategy in the community, as it begins to loosen pandemic restrictions.

Dr. Horacio Arruda said the province is planning to conduct 14,000 tests a day, up from roughly 6,000. Anyone with symptoms will be eligible for testing, starting May 4, he said.

Arruda said there would also be some randomized testing, both in hot spots such as Montreal and Laval, and more limited sampling in regions where there has been little spread.   

"If we test a lot more, we will find a lot more positive cases. This is what we want," Arruda said Friday. 

"We open, we measure. We open, we measure. And if things are going OK, we continue to open. And if things are going bad, we stop."

Increased testing and contact tracing are considered by experts to be an essential part of any plan to reopen the economy.

Arruda said there would be a team to carry out contact tracing, but he offered few details, even though Quebec is only days away from more businesses being allowed to reopen across the province.

Once serological testing is available, Arruda said, Quebec would also carry out checks to better understand what percentage of the population has gained immunity. 

Jorg Fritz, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at McGill University, said Friday's announcement was positive.

But he said a further increase in testing will be needed to track cases more widely, because the question is "not if but when a second wave will occur."

Likewise, Janusz Kaczorowski, a professor of family and emergency medicine at Université de Montréal, said more random testing is necessary to get a true sense of the extent of the outbreak.

Focusing on targeted testing, he said, "doesn't really give us a sense of the true nature of this pandemic in Quebec."

Cases far more widespread than reported

While there are now more than 28,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Quebec, Arruda acknowledged the real number is likely much higher — between three and five per cent of the population. 

That is close to an estimate put forward in a new study by the Montreal-based Center for Interuniversity Research in Quantitative Economics (CIREQ).

The study estimated that as of April 22, the actual number of infections in Quebec was 12 times higher than the number reported. The authors estimated that in Ontario, which has not carried out as many tests, the actual number was 18 times what has been reported.

"Our results show how differences in testing standards across provinces can greatly mask the true severity of outbreak," said Université de Montréal  Prof. Joshua Lewis, an expert in economic demography.

The province also announced 163 more COVID-19 deaths on Friday — the highest number reported on a single day. However, the number includes previously unreported deaths for the month of April.

Premier François Legault was not present at the briefing, having announced plans to scale back his news conferences to three times a week.

Calls to delay school reopening dates

Parents and teachers have raised concerns about the plan to send children back to school in just over two weeks in Montreal and the surrounding area.

Some Montreal neighbourhoods are more worrisome than others, especially Montréal-Nord, which has the city's highest number of positive COVID-19 cases. 

The union representing elementary school teachers in Montréal-Nord, Saint-Michel and Rivière-des-Prairies called on the government to delay the schools' reopening in its jurisdiction.

"These are neighbourhoods with overcrowding of students in several of its schools," Serafino Fabrizi, the union's president, said in a statement late Thursday.

A Montreal police spokesperson confirmed on Thursday that officers will continue enforcing public health regulations until the provincial health authority says otherwise. (Martin Thibault/Radio-Canada)

"Also, because of the higher risk of contamination, teachers living outside these neighbourhoods could easily become transmission vectors for Montreal and its surroundings."

As part of the increased testing, a clinic opened Friday in Montréal-Nord. Anyone with symptoms in the borough — not just essential workers — can call 514-644-4545 for an appointment.

Legault has said he would push back the reopening of elementary schools and daycares if necessary.

Montreal's first designated COVID-19 hospital faces outbreak

The latest hospital to declare an outbreak is the Jewish General, the first and largest of the city's designated centres for treating COVID-19. It is the seventh hospital in Montreal to deal with an outbreak of the virus. 

So far, the others where outbreaks are known to have occurred are the Lakeshore, Maisonneuve-Rosemont, Santa Cabrini, Sacré-Coeur, Verdun and the Douglas Mental Health University Institute.

The worry is that as more hospitals face outbreaks and higher emergency-room occupancy rates than at the beginning of the pandemic, a second wave of infections from deconfinement could overwhelm their facilities. 

Tents were installed in the Verdun Hospital parking lot this week to increase the hospital's capacity to treat COVID-19 patients. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Legault acknowledged at his briefing Thursday that hospitals in Montreal are filling up but said more space is being cleared in them as some patients have been transferred to beds set up in hotels and the former Hôtel-Dieu hospital. 

"We're taking a lot of patients out of those three hospitals [Maisonneuve-Rosemont, Lakeshore and the Douglas] to be able to basically start over," Legault said, adding the hospitals would be cleaned and disinfected as well. 

"We're optimistic that we'll be able to, in the coming days, take back control in those three hospitals."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Benjamin Shingler is based in Montreal. He previously worked at The Canadian Press, Al Jazeera America and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

With files from Simon Nakonechny and Alison Northcott

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