First, the mayor got sick: portrait of a difficult week in Montreal

This week in Montreal started with Mayor Valérie Plante testing positive for COVID-19, and suddenly nearly every Montrealer knew someone who had it, too.

Many turn to private testing, with public clinics overrun and frontline workers bracing themselves

As public testing clinics have been overrun this week, some have turned to private testing services. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

This week in Montreal started with Mayor Valérie Plante testing positive for COVID-19, and suddenly nearly every Montrealer knew someone who had it, too.

Things grew more ominous by the day, if not by the hour. Cases in the province shot up past 3,000, then 6,000 and Thursday, 9,397. There were 3,668 new cases in Montreal alone Wednesday, the day after the city announced it was reinstating its state of emergency.

Local Public Health Director Dr. Mylène Drouin confirmed Thursday morning what many have observed among their acquaintances: that the majority of those infected are between the ages of 18 and 44, and live in neighbourhoods with younger populations, such as La Petite-Patrie, Plateau-Mont-Royal, Mile End, Villeray and Hochelaga.

Drouin said the city's positivity rate is now close to 20 per cent, meaning one in five of people getting public PCR tests are infected. Ninety per cent of those cases are now of the Omicron variant.

As lineups snaked around city blocks and grew until public testing clinics became overrun, some turned to the private system. 

Antonella Argento, co-founder of Beacon Health Care, a private medical service that sends nurses to people's homes to test them, said her staff has been 10 times busier than usual. 

"We were expecting a Christmas rush, but nothing like this. We were expecting to test travellers, but now it's not even travellers, it's people looking for peace of mind."

Asked if there were parts of the city with higher demand, Argento said, "It's all over."

Hospitalizations have risen by about 30 per day in the province, but frontline workers say even twice that amount could overwhelm already beleaguered hospitals.

Many of those hospitalizations remain patients infected with the Delta variant, but Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital emergency physician Dr. Bernard Mathieu said some Omicron patients are starting to trickle in. 

"People are showing up with symptoms which are relatively minor and we don't see respiratory insufficiency, like we saw in the last wave. It's not as bad as it was in last wave as far as severity of symptoms," Mathieu told CBC Thursday. 

"That's a blessing for us because we couldn't face the music if it was something else."

Dr. Bernard Mathieu is an emergency department specialist at the Maisonneuve-Rosemeont Hospital. (CBC)

Mathieu worries it could be the calm before the storm, though. Hospitals have started delaying surgeries and non-urgent procedures, which will lead to sicker non-COVID patients later on, and more and more of his colleagues are off the job because they are either infected or were in close contact with someone who was. 

"We're a little scared of what's going on.… It doesn't look good. And we really need people to get vaccinated, and to stay away from other people," Mathieu said. 

If not, "we're going to just be swamped with COVID cases."

WATCH | Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante says she followed all the rules but still caught COVID:

Montreal's mayor describes her recovery from COVID-19

1 year ago
Duration 1:16
Valérie Plante says she's on the mend after contracting COVID-19. Montreal's mayor issued a plea for citizens to stay vigilant, during a virtual press conference Tuesday.

Homeless services 'preparing for the worst'

Another frontline service bracing itself in Montreal are homeless shelters. Part of the reason Plante said the city once again declared a state of emergency was to offer emergency services to people without homes.

The mayor said the status would allow the city to "rapidly finalize contracts to create emergency housing."

Émilie Fortier, director of emergency services at Old Mission Brewery, said the shelter's isolation dorms have only recently admitted a few new cases, but that staff "are preparing for the worst."

"We've definitely been feeling a sense of urgency in the past couple days. We're waiting for the wave to arrive," Fortier said on Radio-Canada's Tout un matin, noting waves of the virus typically start among travellers, their contacts and eventually reach the homeless population.

Homeless people are 20 times more likely of ending up in hospital with COVID-19 than the general population.

Fortier said local homeless services had already been petitioning the city to create more emergency housing as the weather gets colder and as the city's homeless population has doubled since 2020.

She explained that when outbreaks in shelters become too significant, they have to stop taking admissions.

That's what Nakuset, the director of the Native Women's Shelter of Montreal, announced on Twitter her organization would be doing as of Wednesday, "due to the severity of the Omicron variant, and to keep both staff and residents safe."

Some outbreaks in long-term care

While much of the province's focus has been on hospitals, some outbreaks have begun to pop up in nursing homes and in long-term care. 

In an overview published Wednesday by public health, there were 34 deaths due to recent outbreaks in long-term care homes across the province.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said Wednesday evening that public health officials were following the situation "very, very closely," but were not yet concerned.

As the province and city await a storm, it will be hard to get a real-time picture of the situation over the holidays.

Quebec Public Health will not be publishing daily data on Dec. 24, 25 and 26 nor on Dec. 31, and Jan. 1 and 2. 

Projections published yesterday by the province's public health institute, the Institut national de
santé publique du Québec
 (INSPQ), predict a rise in hospitalizations about a week after the holidays.

With files from Valeria Cori-Manocchio and Daniel Boily