Quebec's Eastern Townships face surge of COVID-19 cases

The Eastern Townships reported its highest daily total of new COVID-19 cases Friday and warned two Sherbrooke hospitals are nearing capacity. The regional health authority says most outbreaks are linked to schools and daycares and it hopes to ease some of the pressure with rapid tests.

Regional health authority plans to hand out rapid tests this weekend, free up beds

Dr. Alain Poirier, the director of public health for the Eastern Townships, is urging people to limit their contacts over the holidays and into the New Year as the region deals with over 70 outbreaks and over 1,000 active cases of COVID-19. (Radio-Canada)

COVID-19 cases in the Eastern Townships have surged along with the rest of Quebec this week, and on Friday, the CIUSSS de l'Estrie-CHUS reported 396 new cases — the most in a single day since the beginning of the pandemic.

There are currently 71 outbreaks and 1,822 active cases in the region.

"It's something we've never seen before on our territory," said Director of Public Health Dr. Alain Poirier.

"We have a lot of outbreaks, the majority of them are in schools... four or five in secondary schools but the rest, around 50, are in primary schools and a few are in [daycares]."

Poirier say the regional health authority will be distributing 3,000 rapid tests this weekend in Sherbrooke and in Granby, in an effort to ease some of the strain on testing centres.

More rapid testing kits are expected to arrive in pharmacies next week and Poirier says they've proven to be effective in detecting cases among children, students and parents over the past couple of months.

"We presume that the introduction of the rapid test that people can do at home, that will help," he told Breakaway host Alison Brunette, noting that only about ten percent of people who go to get tested end up returning a positive result.

Hospitals under pressure

At a press conference on Friday, the Eastern Townships regional health authority said Sherbrooke's Hôtel-Dieu and Fleurimont hospitals, the region's two main facilities for handling COVID-19 patients, are close to full capacity.

In order to free up more beds and personnel, elective surgeries may have to be cancelled.

The health authority says it's expecting hospitalizations to continue to rise and is working to boost capacity in its COVID-19 wards and ICUs to 60 and 16 beds respectively. 

Judy Morris, head of Quebec's emergency room physicians association, says the situation in Sherbrooke is not unique. Most regions are seeing full emergency rooms. (Université de Montréal)

Dr. Judy Morris, head of Quebec's emergency room physicians' association, says the situation in Sherbrooke is unfortunately not unique.

"If you look at the data, it's throughout Quebec," she said on Quebec AM. "Most regions are already, especially in emergency rooms, above capacity. And that's usually a signal that our hospitals are full."

Morris says the contagiousness of the Omicron variant is especially worrisome for health-care workers.

"The COVID cases are hitting everyone, including health-care personnel," she said.

"They don't get sick that much because they were vaccinated but they might still be stuck at home for 10 days. And that's going to be manpower that we're not going to have in our hospitals to take care of the surge in cases."

Poirier says it's crucial for everyone in Quebec to reduce their number of contacts, both throughout the holidays and into the New Year, in order to get through the fourth wave without overwhelming the health network.

"This virus, maybe it's not more severe...but it's being transmitted much more easily," he said,"even if you have the vaccine."

For Morris, vaccination remains the best weapon to fight the new variant.

"It's going to be a battle to convince everyone that the vaccine works and to get the third dose," she said. "It's going to be so important and it's probably how in Quebec we're going to do better than in some other parts of the world."

With files from CBC's Breakaway and Quebec AM

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