As Quebecers consider weekend holiday gatherings, COVID-19 and flu could spoil the party

The spread of COVID-19 is growing in the province, and now Quebecers must deal with the new threat of influenza, according to Dr. Luc Boileau, the interim public health director.

Dr. Luc Boileau calls on Quebecers to 'manage their risk' during long weekend

Dr. Luc Boileau, the province's interim public health director, says flu season has started in Quebec, coinciding with a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. (The Canadian Press)

Just as Quebecers prepare to gather for Easter or Passover, the province is dealing with the double whammy of rising COVID-19 infections and an unseasonal wave of influenza, the interim public health director said Wednesday.

Dr. Luc Boileau told reporters that flu season has started in the province, making it difficult for people to tell whether they have contracted COVID-19 or influenza, given the fact that symptoms can be common to both.

"It's unusual to have a flu season that begins in April," he said.

"It's already present in the community, it's also present in our hospitals and they're already feeling its effects."

In any event, Quebecers with flu or COVID-19 symptoms — typically a sore throat and raspy voice — should self-isolate and especially stay away from people who are more likely to be vulnerable to both illnesses, Boileau said. 

According to data from Quebec's public health institute (INSPQ), the positivity rate for influenza has grown from just under one per cent to about seven per cent in the last three weeks.

The beginning of the flu season is coinciding with a sharp increase in the number of hospitalizations in the province related to COVID-19.

On Wednesday, the province reported a total of 2,060 coronavirus patients in hospital — the first time hospitalizations have surpassed 2,000 since mid-February. Boileau estimates that about 45 per cent of those patients were admitted due to complications from the virus, with the others having been diagnosed after having sought care for different reasons.

With a long holiday weekend approaching, many Quebecers are likely considering large get-togethers.

Health officials say they will not impose limits on gatherings as they did last year, but Boileau encouraged Quebecers "manage their risk."

"We're really in the process of [developing] a habit that we can use to make sure we can manage our own situations."

Dr. Jean Longtin, a microbiologist with the province's Health Ministry, said the spread of influenza began in Europe several weeks ago, and it's posing a challenge for health-care workers there, even if people who are sick are less likely to require hospitalization.

"Influenza in Europe is generating lots of medical consultations, that somewhat clog up a [health-care] system that is already fragile."

The latest projections from the Institut national d'excellence en santé et services sociaux (INESSS) show that number of hospitalizations could stretch beyond 2,300 over the next two weeks.

The institute expects the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care — 83 as of Wednesday's provincial update — to remain mostly stable during that time.

"The [health] network is under pressure right now," Boileau said before adding that he believes the tools are there to keep it from crumbling.

WATCH | New procedure for using rapid tests:

Health Ministry explains new rapid test procedure

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Dr. Jean Longtin, a microbiologist with the Quebec Health Ministry, outlines the new COVID-19 rapid test swabbing procedure shown in a government video.

Novavax vaccine arrives in Quebec

Daniel Paré, the man overseeing the province's COVID-19 vaccination campaign, said the Novavax vaccine against COVID-19, which was approved by Health Canada nearly two months ago, has arrived in the province and can be administered.

So far, more than 7,500 doses have been delivered in Quebec, with more than 200,000 doses on the way over the coming weeks, Paré said.

In Quebec, the vaccine will be used for first and second doses. 

The vaccine is an option for adults who either refuse to take available mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, or cannot receive them for medical reasons.

For now, Quebecers are not able to book an appointment to receive the Novavax vaccine. Instead, it will only be available at drop-in clinics.

To see where the doses are available in your area, click here