Montreal

Quebec 'can't afford' to ease public health measures, even as COVID-19 hospitalizations plateau, says premier

'We're not out of the woods yet,' said Premier François Legault Thursday, resisting pressure to ease COVID-19 restrictions. He urged Quebecers Thursday to be patient — and pleaded again with hold-outs to get vaccinated.

'I understand we are all tired, but lives are at stake,' says François Legault

Quebec Premier François Legault said Thursday the Health Ministry is confident it will not have to turn to 'Plan B' — radical measures to ease overcrowding in hospitals — but it is too soon to ease the latest pandemic restrictions. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Despite growing pressure to ease public health restrictions as the number of Quebecers in hospital with COVID-19 begins to level off, Premier François Legault said Thursday it's still too early to ease restrictions imposed during this fifth wave of the pandemic. 

"For the moment, we can't afford to lift public health measures," he said. Doing so would pose a significant risk of once again increasing transmission and hospitalizations, "which we can't do," he said.

The premier said Quebec's health-care network remains too fragile, with 12,000 health workers still absent from their jobs. 

WATCH | Legault says it's too soon to ease health restrictions:

Quebec's premier says the situation is improving, but not enough to lift restrictions

4 months ago
Duration 1:32
François Legault says while COVID-19 hospitalizations seem to have peaked, projections are too unclear and the health system is too fragile to begin lifting restrictions.

The Quebec Health Ministry reported more than 3,411 people in hospital with COVID-19 Thursday, down 14 from Wednesday, and Legault told Quebecers at an afternoon news conference the latest wave of infections appears to have reached its peak.

"The situation remains very difficult at the moment," he said.

Earlier Thursday, Ontario announced restaurant dining rooms, gyms and bars will reopen at the end of January to a limited number of customers. Premier Doug Ford said the plan is to lift most remaining measures by mid-March.

Legault was flooded with questions about why Quebec isn't following Ontario's lead.

The premier responded that the situation in Quebec's health-care system is different than the one Ontario is facing and that there is still "a lot of uncertainty" about COVID-19 trends in the province.

"Where will we be in two days, two weeks?" he asked. 

Quebec's 10 p.m. curfew was lifted on Monday, and stores are once again free to open on Sundays. But most other pandemic restrictions, such as the closure of restaurant dining rooms and the ban on indoor gatherings of more than one household, remain in place. 

So far, no need for 'Plan B'

If the province stays at its current level of admissions, Legault says it won't need to move to "Plan B," the latest contingency plan to cut services revealed earlier this week, as more and more Quebec hospitals surpassed the maximum number of beds set aside for COVID-19 patients.

Quebec's hospitals should continue to see pressure ease, according to projections from Quebec's national health-care research institute.

The Institut national d'excellence en santé et en services sociaux (INESSS) said Thursday it expected around 200 new admissions a day by the end of January. Quebec has been recording between 296 and 470 new hospital admissions for COVID-19 patients daily over the past week.

WATCH | Legault explains why Quebec won't reopen like Ontario

Legault explains why Quebec won't reopen like Ontario

4 months ago
Duration 1:21
Quebec's premier says the situation with the province's healthcare system is different from Ontario's, and it's one reason why he won't follow Ontario's lead when it comes to loosening pandemic restrictions.

The overall number of COVID-19 patients in hospital who don't require intensive care is expected to drop slightly over the next two weeks, to around 3,000 people — still well above the Health Ministry's Level-4 alert.

The INESSS said it expects the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care to "stabilize" at around 300 people.

However, the institute said its projections "do not take into account recent changes to the health measures and the effects of the return to school."

Although the province "can finally see the light at the end of the the tunnel," Legault said he prefers to wait for more proof of progress before changing any rules. But some opposition parties are calling for more immediate action. 

Quebec Conservative Leader Éric Duhaime said Legault must realize the measures are too restrictive, and some Quebecers are simply not following them anymore. 

The leader of Quebec's official opposition also called for the reopening of sports for the province's youth, saying the government must find solutions to return to some normalcy, despite the virus.

"After two years of the pandemic, we can no longer pretend to be surprised and manage with closures," Dominique Anglade said.

At Thursday's news conference, Legault urged Quebecers to be patient.

"I understand we are all tired, but lives are at stake," he said.

Restaurant owners disappointed

Quebec's restaurant owners say they are disappointed with the decision not to allow dining rooms to be opened.

Martin Vézina, who speaks for Quebec's restaurant association, says restaurateurs need a bit of hope, as well as time to work out the logistics of a future opening date.

"I would have expected at least some of these measures [to] have been reduced in terms of how intense they are, as well as talk about a certain date," said Vezina.

"All the chains need to know in advance — our distributors, the manufacturers ... so that we can order food, and we can receive it before the reopening."

In Ontario, the province has announced it will allow restaurants, bars and other food establishments to reopen at 50 per cent capacity on Jan. 31. 

Reaching the unvaccinated

Quebec also announced a plan to try to get more people vaccinated, including those who are still hesitant.

Currently, 36 per cent of Quebecers have received a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Health officials say it is still too early to impose a plan to require people to have three doses in order to be allowed to enter places requiring a vaccine passport.

For now, the government's emphasis will be on finding ways to reach the approximately 560,000 adults who have not yet received any doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Junior Health Minister Lionel Carmant is being asked to come up with a plan to try to persuade those Quebecers to get the jab.

All Quebecers are being asked to get their booster dose now and if they have already made an appointment for February, to try to move up their appointment if they are able to do so.

The province is also moving forward with its plan to require shoppers at large-surface retail outlets to present a vaccination passport, despite the improving COVID-19 situation.

Health Minister Christian Dubé said the government intends to crack down on the proliferation of fake vaccination passports, making sure they're "revoked." Quebec's anti-corruption squad is investigating various schemes related to the alleged frauds.

"It's criminal what's happened," said Dubé. "It's very dangerous ... because they've allowed unvaccinated people go to places that were reserved for vaccinated people." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sabrina Jonas

Web reporter

Sabrina Jonas is a web reporter with CBC in Montreal with a particular interest in social justice issues and human interest stories. Sabrina previously worked at CBC Toronto after graduating from Ryerson's School of Journalism. Drop her an email at sabrina.jonas@cbc.ca

With files from The Canadian Press

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