Early in pandemic Quebec didn't follow expert advice to expand quarantine order

Email exchanges, seen by Radio-Canada, raise questions about the Legault government's willingness to follow the advice of its own experts.

Emails show senior public health officials thought more health-care workers should have been self-isolating

Premier François Legault, right, has said he always follows advice offered by Horacio Arruda, left, Quebec's director of public health. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

In the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Quebec, the provincial government ignored a recommendation from public health officials to expand the scope of a quarantine order directed at returning travelers, according to documents obtained by Radio-Canada.

On March 12, Premier François Legault suggested that all incoming travelers to the province isolate themselves for 14 days. For health and education workers returning to Quebec, the isolation period was mandatory.

But the measure wasn't retroactive, even though thousands of Quebecers had just returned from abroad when spring break ended on March 6.

The returning travelers — especially those coming from Europe and the U.S. — were the source of the first wave of reported COVID-19 infections in Quebec.

At 7:09 a.m. on March 13, the top public health official in Montreal, Mylène Drouin, sent an email to the senior public health official in the province, Horacio Arruda.

In an email dated March 13, Mylène Drouin, public health director for Montreal, suggested the quarantine order be applied retroactively for health-care workers. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

She wanted the isolation to be retroactive for health-care workers, saying it was a "critical moment" for the system. 

"I think it has to be retroactive for those who are really in contact with patients because we now have a lot of cases of personnel who have returned from break and who, since last night, have developed symptoms," Drouin said in the email, which Radio-Canada obtained through an access-to-information request.

Arruda replied, saying "Ok."

But this recommendation was never implemented by the Legault government.

Several experts who have studied the epidemic in Quebec believe infected workers helped spread the disease within the health-care system, particularly in long-term care homes. 

Advice on daycares also disregarded 

In her March 13 exchanges with Arruda, Drouin also advocated that daycares be kept open, given their staff did not have a spring break. Daycares could be protected, she said, by more targeted isolation and closure orders. 

Arruda indicated in his reply email that he also agreed with this proposal. "I won't close daycares for the moment," he wrote to Drouin at 7:14 a.m.

But that recommendation too was disregarded. Just a few hours later, the Legault government announced daycares would close. 

Legault has said repeatedly in the past that he always follows Arruda's recommendations. "I listen to him like he's my mother," the premier said at one point. 

The email exchanges accessed by Radio-Canada, however, raise questions about the Legault government's willingness to follow the advice of its own experts.

"They told us they listen to public health, but that's not the case. We want answers," said the leader of the Opposition Liberals, Dominique Anglade. 

Both Québec Solidaire and the Parti Québécois also called on the government to be more transparent about its decision-making process. 

Legault's office responds

Drouin's office declined an interview request from Radio-Canada. Legault's office also initially declined to comment. 

But after the Radio-Canada story appeared Wednesday morning, a spokesperson for the government said that the opinions Arruda expresses to his fellow public-health officials do not themselves constitute official recommendations.

The recommendations, the spokesperson said, are only finalized later, following a discussion with the premier. 

"We never took a decision that went against the wishes of Dr. Arruda," Legault's spokesperson, Ewan Sauves, told Radio-Canada. 

But Sauves also acknowledged that Arruda sometimes changes his positions during his conversations with Legault.

Based on reporting by Romain Schué and Daniel Boily


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