Toll of COVID-19 still heavy in Montreal, but there are encouraging signs, says public health director

For the first time since the start of the year, the virus is showing signs of slowing down, according to Montreal's public health director. But the region's hospitals are still under a heavy burden.

Number of infections per 100,000 residents steadily decreasing

Montreal's director of public health, Dr. Mylène Drouin, says there are reasons to be optimistic about the region's COVID-19 situation. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

The situation in Montreal remains critical but there are signs that the spread of COVID-19 is slowing down, according to the region's public health director.

"We're seeing that the measures have been working," said Dr. Mylène Drouin at a news conference Friday.

"The efforts that you all have made are [having an effect].

Drouin was optimistic but cautious in her approach — a tone that echoed the premier's message from Quebec City Thursday.

Montreal's public health director highlighted that infections per 100,000 residents have steadily dipped, going from 46 at the start of the year to 37 more recently. She said she expects that number to soon dip below 30.

The drop may seem considerable, but Drouin warned that the number is still high, and well above what would normally have earned the region a red-zone designation under the colour-coded system the province used last year.

Drouin also said that for the first time in months, the average number of cases caused by one coronavirus infection in the Montreal area is below one — another sign that outbreaks are being kept under control.

The public health director was also quick to point out that the virus continues to place a heavy burden on hospitals with 696 patients in the region, including 112 people in intensive care.

Drouin, Legault not on same page regarding rapid tests

To make sure the downward trend continues, local public health officials are ready to deploy, if necessary, rapid COVID-19 tests. They have been largely unused since the province received them from the federal government.

Details regarding their potential use were scarce, but Drouin appeared to contradict a statement made earlier this week by Quebec Premier François Legault, who said the tests could be used to screen people who don't have symptoms, especially in hard-hit Montreal neighbourhoods such as Saint-Léonard, Montréal-Nord and Rivières-des-Prairies.

Drouin said she had no knowledge of this plan, and said rapid tests would only be used with people experiencing symptoms, and in specific settings where the positivity rate appears to be higher than normal due to concerns about the tests' accuracy.

"The more we use these tests in contexts where the positivity rates are high, the more reliable the tests will be," Drouin said. "That's why we want to use them where we won't have to redo a test to validate."

Public health officials also hope to prevent outbreaks in schools by testing more children aged 12-17.

Last week, Drouin sent letters home to parents, encouraging them to have their children tested for COVID-19 immediately if they show any flu-like symptoms, and to keep them at home if they or anyone in their household is awaiting test results.

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