New variants driving increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations in Quebec, public health says

Public health director Dr. Luc Boileau says while new Omicron subvariants are driving the increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Quebec, it's too early to consider bringing back public health restrictions.

Dr. Luc Boileau says it's too early to consider bringing back public health restrictions

Dr. Luc Boileau, Quebec's public health director, is asking Quebecers to be vigilant amid an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada)

Quebec's public health director says new highly contagious Omicron subvariants are driving the increase in COVID-19 cases in Quebec, but he says it's too early to consider bringing back public health restrictions. 

"We're not there," said Dr. Luc Boileau at a news conference Wednesday. He also said it's not yet clear whether the province is entering a seventh wave.

The update comes following a surge in COVID-related hospitalizations, community transmission, outbreaks, as well as the number of health-care workers off the job due to the virus. 

On Wednesday, the province reported 1,260 people in hospital with the virus — an increase of 34 from the day before — following a 113-patient jump on Tuesday. 

Boileau said this increase is mainly attributable to the BA.2.12.1, BA.4 and BA.5 variants, which he said make up 75 per cent of the new cases in the province and are significantly more contagious than the original strain.

Boileau said this resurgence of cases was expected, although it arrived a little earlier than anticipated. He said he understands Quebecers want to enjoy their summer, but he asked them to be vigilant. 

He suggested people wear masks when gathering indoors and at crowded outdoor events, especially those in at-risk groups.

"If I were at an event, like a festival, I would wear [a mask]," Boileau said.

He said those at higher risk should consider getting a booster shot, if they haven't already done so. 

Trend is concerning, says epidemiologist

Dr. Jean Longtin, a microbiologist with the Quebec Health Ministry, said there are many factors involved in the resurgence of cases. 

"Definitely the lifting of public health measures, we knew, we expected it would have an impact because masks are quite efficient," he said. Longtin said waning immunity, either from past infection or vaccination, also plays a factor. 

Asked why officials aren't recommending the reinstatement of the mask requirement, Longtin said the situation has moved to more of a personal responsibility to manage risk regarding COVID-19. 

"We could impose a mask for millions of people while those who'd have the greatest benefit would be a limited group," he said. 

While health officials said Quebecers should expect transmission to slow over the coming weeks, one expert says the increase in cases is worrisome. 

Epidemiologist Prativa Baral says she expects Quebec to see more cases of COVID-19 over the summer and a 'messier' fall and winter when many more activities happen indoors. (Jerome James)

"This trend is definitely concerning and it's something we will need to continue to monitor because it's definitely a red flag for us," Prativa Baral, an epidemiologist and doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CBC Montreal's Daybreak Wednesday. 

"Sadly, there is quite a bit of COVID circulating around us," she said. "We just don't talk about it as much, and we don't see it reflected in the official numbers because a lot of people are rightfully using rapid tests at home." 

Quebec's lack of masking requirements in crowded public spaces and the emergence of the more immune evasive subvariants increase the likelihood of re-infection, even if you've had the virus previously or were adequately vaccinated, according to Baral.

Baral says Quebec can do a lot more at a "system-wide level" to help limit transmission. 

"We've kind of allowed people to make decisions for themselves and that works only to a certain extent," she said. "At the end of the day, we have to recognize that COVID is airborne." 

With European countries currently experiencing a surge in cases, Baral says she expects Quebec to follow suit, likely causing a "summer bump and likely a messier fall and winter when many more activities happen indoors."

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam tweeted Friday that while severe COVID-19 illness trends are stable or declining nationally, the overall proportion of BA.4 and BA.5 cases in the country is rising. 

The head of Ontario's COVID-19 science table has already voiced concern about the BA.5 subvariant becoming the dominant strain in his province.

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement on Wednesday that "the pandemic is changing but it's not over. We have made progress but it is not over."

Ghebreyesus said BA.4 and BA.5 variants have caused case numbers to rise in 110 countries, "causing overall global cases to increase by 20 per cent."


with files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak and Steve Rukavina