Quebec experts call for 'circuit-breaker' lockdown as coronavirus spreads
Experts in health care, economy recommend closures during holidays to coincide with school break
Quebec Premier François Legault has urged people not to gather over Christmas, but some experts want the province to go further, by imposing wide-scale closures over the holiday period.
Roxane Borgès Da Silva, a public health professor at Université de Montréal, is among those calling for a so-called "circuit-breaker" lockdown — meaning closing everything except for essential businesses — between Dec. 20 and Jan. 3.
"We are seeing a rise in cases that is very troubling," Da Silva said Monday on Radio-Canada's Tout un Matin.
"We are very worried for our health-care system and with the holiday period we can put the province on pause more easily."
Da Silva and Pierre-Carl Michaud, a professor of applied economics at HEC Montréal, wrote an open letter published in La Presse on Monday, co-signed by 75 experts in public health, medicine and economics.
The letter makes the case that a further spread of the virus, before the arrival of the vaccine, "could prevent the recovery of the Quebec economy for months to come, not to mention the harmful effects on children if they had to be confined at home during the school period."
It argues that the holiday period presents a " unique opportunity to reduce the rate of the spread of COVID-19," given that schools will already be closed.
"A complete shutdown, which would keep only essential services open for two weeks, would help halt the spread of the virus."
The recommendation comes only days after Legault walked back a plan to allow gatherings for a four-day period over the holidays. He said the rise in cases, hospitalizations and deaths made the proposal too risky.
The province reported a further uptick in cases over the weekend, with another 1,500 cases and 22 deaths on Monday. There are now more than 800 people in hospital.
Would it work?
Benoît Mâsse, another public health professor at Université de Montréal, said the rise in cases suggests that schools and businesses, which remain open, are "generating enough contacts to increase the community spread."
Mâsse opted not to sign the letter. He believes a two-week shutdown would create anxiety among a public already upset by Legault's backtracking. Nor, he said, would the measure be enough to reverse the trend.
"It will be lost as soon as we open schools," he said. He suggested a longer shutdown, of 28 days or more, would be necessary to halt the spread of the virus.
Dr. Don Sheppard, director and founder of the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity, said it would likely take as long as two months for a circuit breaker to be effective, based on what has been seen in other countries.
Health Minister Christian Dubé said Monday he believes the measures Quebec currently has in place are strict enough, calling on Quebecers to further respect them and adding the province may have to work on enforcing them.
"It's unfortunate we've seen this loosening [of respect for the rules]. We're always trying to find a balance between mental health and our health-care system. We had been successful, up until now," Dubé said.
He said the uptick in daily cases that started in late November led the government to cancel gatherings over Christmas. He said if Quebecers put in the effort, he believes the province can get the number of cases under control once again.
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The hope of rapid testing
In his view, widespread rapid testing in schools and businesses would help detect how the virus is spreading, particularly among those who are asymptomatic.
Rapid tests are now being used in Saguenay but are still not being used widely. Sheppard said the province hasn't moved as quickly as other jurisdictions to develop a rapid-testing strategy.
"Honestly, I'm quite disappointed that the ministry and public health hasn't moved faster on this," he said.
"This is, as far as I can see, the only thing standing between us and a full-barrel lockdown."