Quebec offers 2nd booster shot to seniors to prepare for spread of Omicron subvariant

Residents of long-term care and retirement homes will be able to get another booster by early next week, said Dr. Luc Boileau, speaking at a news conference Wednesday.

Interim public health director says he remains optimistic about situation, though masks stay on until April 15

Dr. Luc Boileau, Quebec's interim director of public health, said Wednesday the mask mandate in public places will not be lifted earlier than planned in mid-April. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada)

Quebec's interim public health director says a new round of vaccinations is on the way in an effort to fight back against yet another COVID-19 surge.

Residents of long-term care and retirement homes will be first on the list to get another booster by early next week, said Dr. Luc Boileau, speaking at a news conference Wednesday.

Any Quebecer aged 80 and up will also have access to the new dose, he said, as will those who rely on in-home care through the public health system.

Boileau said cases and hospitalizations are again on the rise, and the risk of catching and transmitting the virus remains high.

"I ask you all to be careful," said Boileau, describing the Omicron subvariant BA.2 as a "game changer."

The subvariant is 30 to 50 per cent more contagious than Omicron, he said, and that's why cases are rising everywhere.

Tell us what you think!

Help shape the future of CBC article pages by taking a quick survey.

Boileau hesitates to call recent surge a 6th wave

Boileau said he has told regional health authorities on Tuesday to prepare for the expected rise in cases and the new round of vaccinations but insisted it is too early to say if the province is experiencing a sixth wave.

He said he expects there to be a rise in cases and hospitalizations, but it won't be as bad as the fifth wave.

"Let's wait before we start talking about a sixth wave," Boileau said. He said public health officials will better understand where this surge is heading in the coming days.

Boileau remained positive about the situation in Quebec, saying a substantial proportion of the population is vaccinated, and the province has been carefully scaling back public health restrictions while keeping key measures in place.

"We're not surprised by the rise in cases in hospitals," said Boileau.

He said rapid tests are available for free in pharmacies in Quebec, and he encouraged people to take advantage of that service if they are showing symptoms.

There had been hope that the mask requirement could be lifted as early as this month, but Boileau said the mandate will stay in effect until mid-April as planned and a few weeks beyond that for public transit.

In the last 24 hours, Quebec recorded 2,111 new cases, which is considered an underestimate, since PCR testing of the general public was stopped in early January. Tests remain available to those in high-risk settings such as hospitals, long-term care homes, detention centres and homeless shelters.

The positivity rate is also up, at 13.3 per cent. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that the positivity rate fall and remain below five per cent for at least two weeks before relaxing public health restrictions.

Booster shots help curb transmission

The second booster shot is recommended for seniors to prevent outbreaks among the older population, said Jean Longtin, a microbiologist with the Ministry of Public Health, who spoke at Wednesday's media briefing alongside Boileau.

Marie-France Raynault, a senior strategic medical advisor with the ministry, said school-aged children are not experiencing outbreaks, and transmission is mostly among adults at the moment.

That's why it is important to administer the booster shots now as they have been shown to reduce transmission of COVID-19, she said.

Jean Longtin, right, a microbiologist with the Ministry of Public Health, spoke alongside Dr. Luc Boileau, centre, and Marie-France Raynault, a senior strategic medical advisor. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/Radio-Canada)

Earlier in the day, Premier François Legault said there are no plans to enact new public health measures.

When it comes to the mask mandate, he said it is up to public health to make recommendations, and if Boileau wants to maintain the rule until April 15, then the province will do so.

Legault said he will personally continue to wear a mask, and "it is important that everyone wears a mask."

"We have to be careful," he said. "So far, we didn't see any additional measures in Europe and usually the situation they live in is about a couple of weeks before what we live here."