Most Quebecers support easing public health measures, but experts urge caution

Virologists say to stay vigilant as Omicron subvariant, known as BA.2, cases surge in Europe and could lead to a sixth wave here.

With Europe seeing rising cases, 6th wave here is possible

As of mid-April, Quebec will phase out the masking mandate in public spaces. (The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes)

Most Quebecers are comfortable seeing public health measures eased, a new poll shows, but experts are concerned an upward trend in COVID-19 cases in Europe could signify a sixth wave is on its way here.

Canadian cases have tended to follow the pattern of the pandemic in Europe, which is now seeing an increase in the contagious Omicron subvariant, known as BA.2. Cases are starting to spike in the U.K., the Netherlands and Germany.

This weekend, Quebec halted the use of vaccine passports and the province aims to lift mask mandates in public spaces by mid-April.

Universite du Québec à Montreal virologist Benoit Barbeau says though it's too early to say how things will play out, the decision to lift mask mandates may be premature.

"I think that we need to think it over and really be more proactive in determining the situation in Quebec," he said. "Thankfully right now we can see that the number of hospitalizations keeps going down in numbers, but we still have active transmission."

Monitoring cases in Quebec with a more stringent approach to PCR testing and measuring viral loads in wastewater are good ways to assess whether or not to ease measures and mitigate a sixth wave if it looks likely, said Barbeau.

The Quebec College of Physicians is warning people to stay prudent.

"We are all eager to put the pandemic behind us," they tweeted Monday. "But in light of the significant resurgence of cases internationally, we must remain very vigilant. Let's protect ourselves and think of the most vulnerable."

Immunity from booster shots and previous infections could also help reduce the severity of the BA.2 variant, which has been in Canada as long as Omicron.

Poll shows support for move

Almost three-quarters of Quebecers support the lifting of public health measures according to a poll by the Angus-Reid Institute and CBC.

Only 28 per cent of respondents believe the province is moving too quickly, while 42 per cent think it's the right time to ease measures and 30 per cent think the Quebec government is moving too slowly.

Over the last few weeks Quebec has seen a downward trend in hospitalizations, in part because of a highly vaccinated population and because the Omicron variant appears to be running out of hosts, said Dr. Raymond Tellier, a physician and specialist in medical microbiology at the McGill University Health Centre.

This makes us better prepared if a sixth wave starts here, said Tellier.

Warmer weather may also help curb the spread of COVID-19 since the transmission of respiratory viruses is generally lower in spring and summer as people spend more time outside.

"It's not a given that it will go the same way as Europe but I think we need to be very cautious as to what is going on and it might be wiser to go slowly," said Tellier about the easing of public health measures. Like Barbeau, he stressed being proactive is key.

In Laval, the local health authority, the Centre intégré de santé et de services sociaux (CISSS), is doing just that: monitoring outbreak data on a daily basis. 

"The preparedness plan for a subsequent wave is constantly evolving in order to act quickly when needed," said CISSS spokesperson ​​Marie-Eve Despatie-Gagnon.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Health Ministry told CBC News it was too early to determine the cause behind the recent increase in cases around Europe.

"Nevertheless, the situation is not unexpected. A pandemic is made up of successive waves," the spokesperson said.

 "If the situation requires it, Québec will react quickly."

Although the COVID-19 caseload could get heavier in the weeks ahead, it is too early to be talking about a sixth wave in the province, the spokesperson said.

with files from Lauren Mccallum and Simon Nakonechny