Public health institute says Quebec is in 6th wave, urges people to reduce contacts

Even if there are no mandated public health measures to reduce contacts, there clearly is a need for the population to minimize the number of people they meet, according to Dr. Gaston De Serres, an epidemiologist at Quebec's institute of public health.

Hospitalizations jump by 18% as Quebec reports more than 3,000 new cases of COVID-19

Quebec has been experiencing a rise in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, confirming more than 3,000 cases in the last 24 hours. (CBC / Radio-Canada)

Quebec's institute of public health (INSPQ) says the province is in its sixth wave of COVID-19 infections.

The institute estimates this most recent wave began in mid-March and it is quickly becoming a challenge in the health-care system as more and more workers get sick and are forced to stay home, according to Dr. Gaston De Serres, an epidemiologist at INSPQ.

He said a group at the INSPQ has been reviewing the data. 

"Clearly the indicators were showing we were already in the sixth wave," said De Serres, noting those indicators include points such as the positivity rate, number of sick health-care workers and number of hospitalizations.

"The fact that we are in a wave is something we were expecting."

Defining a wave is easier after it occurs, but it's harder at the beginning stage, he explained. Last week, it was clear the number of hospitalizations was increasing and nearly all regions were affected by COVID-19, he said.

"What we don't know, and what could be a variable, is how big this wave will be," De Serres said. 

"This depends largely upon the number of contacts the population will have in the next few weeks." 

Even if there are no official public health measures to reduce contacts, there clearly is a need for the population to minimize the number of contacts if the province hopes to get through this wave with a limited number of patients admitted to the hospital, he said.

De Serres said the Quebec government has made the choice to move away from mandates and is relying on citizens to be responsible for their own behaviour.

The wave was seen in Europe and was expected to affect the province, he said, but the increase in cases will be much smaller than what Quebec experienced at the end of December and the beginning of January.

The weeks of April should still be quite busy in terms of hospitalizations, De Serres added.

Hospitalizations on the rise

For the first time since the peak of the fifth wave in mid-January, the number of new hospitalizations has increased by 18 per cent since the previous week, according to a report by Quebec's provincial health institute (INESSS) published Wednesday and based on the data collected between March 19 and 25.

The hospitalization increase is observed in all age groups and in all regions, the report says. Although there is a slight increase in the number of people requiring a stay in intensive care, that number remains relatively low, the report says.

The number of hospitalizations is expected to go up by about 200 per day in the coming weeks, the INESSS says.

The province reported 3,067 new cases of COVID-19 and eight deaths on Wednesday even though the general public no longer has access to PCR tests as they are reserved for those in high-risk settings such as hospitals, long-term care homes, detention centres and homeless shelters.

BA.2 Omicron subvariant makes up majority of cases

Quebec's interim public health director, Dr. Luc Boileau drew short of confirming another wave of infections when he held a news conference on Sunday.

However, he said the spike in cases in recent weeks — driven by the Omicron variant BA.2 — suggests a sixth wave is imminent.

"Every person has to act responsibly, according to their situation for themselves and for others," Boileau said.

Boileau said he would wait until hearing from INSPQ experts before coming to the conclusion that Quebec is in a sixth wave.

"We're not in the same situation as we were in December and January, but public health is following all of this very closely," he said, noting the BA.2 variant is even more contagious than the Omicron strain.

"The increase of the variant is worrisome."

De Serres said the BA.2 variant now accounts for the majority of cases. He said it is particularly important that people take steps to protect the province's seniors and  those who are immunocompromised, as they are more vulnerable to COVID-19.

He said Quebec's high vaccination rate will help, but to reduce the risk, "we need to reduce our contacts."

with files from Radio-Canada and Sharon Yonan-Renold