Montreal

Quebec public health director defends plan to lift COVID-19 restrictions early

A day after the province announced a plan to speed up the removal of pandemic restrictions and gradually scrap mask rules, the province's interim public health director said all signs point to the spread of COVID-19 being under control.

Province needed more data first, expert says

Dr. Luc Boileau, interim Quebec director of public health, says all epidemiological indicators in Quebec are improving. (The Canadian Press)

Quebec's interim public health director says all signs point to the spread of COVID-19 being under control, and the time being right to speed up the process to lift COVID-19 measures, including the gradual removal of mask rules in public places.

As of March 12 — two days earlier than originally planned — Quebecers will no longer need to show proof of vaccination to enter public venues such as restaurants, bars, theatres or cinemas, and businesses will be allowed to operate at 100 per cent capacity.

The province intends to do away with mandatory mask rules in public spaces by mid-April, with the exception of public transit. The government intends to scrap the requirement to wear masks on the bus, metro and commuter trains in May. 

The Health Ministry announced these changes in a statement late Wednesday.

"The epidemiological situation is going much better than it did a few weeks ago. It's not surprising," Dr. Luc Boileau told reporters Thursday.

"When it comes to hospitalizations, the number of cases, the specific cases among particular clienteles, the outbreaks, everything is going in the same, good direction."

Neither Premier François Legault nor Health Minister Christian Dubé was present during the news conference.

WATCH | Dr. Luc Boileau explains how Quebec will protect immunocompromised people:

3rd, 4th vaccine doses key to protecting immunocompromised after end of mask rules, Boileau says

4 months ago
Duration 0:44
Dr. Luc Boileau, Quebec's interim public health director, says COVID-19 vaccines and antiviral drugs will help lower the risk of contagion for immunocompromised people after mask rules are lifted.

Boileau, who became the province's interim public health director in January, also said the number of students absent from school due to COVID-19 is on the decline.

He did not rule out the possibility of the government moving up that timeline. He acknowledged, however, that the province's epidemiological portrait could change after March break.

"With that, we'll be able to, I can imagine, to properly follow the impact in terms of the number of cases," he said. "We'll see it with the students and we'll see it with the health-care workers.

When asked if lifting the obligation to wear masks would endanger immunocompromised Quebecers, the public health director said that risk would be likely be lower by April, as long as the spread of COVID-19 remains under control.

Dr. Matthew Oughton, a physician in the Jewish General Hospital's infectious diseases division, says the government should have waited until after March break to announce its plan to speed up lifting public health rules. (Submitted by Matthew Oughton )

Boileau also stressed that wearing a mask in public settings will be a personal choice once the rules are lifted. Same goes, he said, for people who may not be comfortable being around people who don't wear them.

"Of course, for some persons that are patients with cancer or very complicated diseases impacting their immune system, they might decide to continue to wear [masks] or not to get in a crowd with a lot of persons," he said.

"So this will be a matter of them controlling their own risk."

The availability of third and fourth COVID-19 vaccine doses as well as antiviral medication such as Paxvloid will act as a safeguard against that risk, Boileau said.

On Thursday, Boileau also clarified that the expected changes to the province's masking rules do not apply to hospitals and long-term care homes.

"We do not recommend, for now, to remove the use of masks in health-care settings," he said, adding that masking rules in private seniors' homes will mirror those in the general population.

Province should have waited, expert says

Dr. Matthew Oughton, a physician in the Jewish General Hospital's infectious diseases division, said he's not surprised by the upcoming COVID-19 rule changes. However, he says he thinks the government should have waited until after March break to announce them.

"I would have thought it to be much more prudent to have waited at least two weeks after the end of spring break to ensure that we continue to have reasonable stability when it comes to the burden on the health-care system," he said.

For weeks, the availability of COVID-19 tests have been limited, with many Quebecers relying on rapid, home testing kits to confirm their positivity status.

Oughton said he wished the province based its decision on more data.

"We're really relying on these very late indicators — the number of people who are being hospitalized, the number of people who need ICU beds," he said.

"Those do tell you what's going on but those tell you what's going on in the community with a delay of something like around three weeks."

Oughton applauded the province's recent decision to resume wastewater monitoring as a way to better understand the spread of the virus.

He added he would feel "far more comfortable" if that system was already up and running prior to the government announcing its intentions to get rid of vaccine passports sooner and remove mask rules.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak

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