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COVID-19: record case numbers force sweeping new measures

A sombre Christian Dubé addressed Quebecers on Monday as cases of COVID-19 swelled over the weekend to 4,571, which is the highest number announced since the start of the pandemic.

“The situation is critical right now,” said the Minister of Health. The province has already reached its capacity in testing centres, and hospitals are already at 50 per cent capacity for treating COVID patients. The vaccination campaign will be ramped up to get as many Quebecers over the age of 65 inoculated with third doses as quickly as possible, however Dubé admitted this will not be enough in the short-term to tamp down the virus’ spread.

As a result, an extensive set of emergency measures went into effect at 5 p.m. last night, closing bars, taverns, casinos, gyms, movie theatres, performance venues, and spas (except for personal care). Restaurants may now open their dining rooms at half capacity from 5 a.m. to 10. p.m., while delivery or drive-through services may continue outside these hours. All sports events, including those taking place at professional and higher levels, will now be played without fans in the stands (except for parents). Also, a return to working from home is now mandatory for all those who are able.

Dubé announced the closure of all elementary and secondary schools as of December 21, as well as CEGEPS, universities and adult and professional centres. The only exception are elementary schools where vaccinations have been scheduled or for the distribution of rapid test kits. The expected return to in-person classes has been delayed to at least January 10 for all students. All sports and extracurricular activities have been cancelled. Early childcare centres (CPEs) and daycare services will however remain open.

Dubé said he was meeting with expert advisors Monday night to go over new projections, expected to be released on Tuesday. He would not rule out the imposition of further measures if the news was not good. “We are taking this one day at a time,” said Dubé, while reiterating that the situation is precarious, and that Quebecers must cut their contact with people outside their households.

Avoid testing facilities if non-symptomatic

With testing centres already working at maximum capacity, Dubé asked that people only go to be tested at an official centre if they are experiencing symptoms or to confirm a positive result from a rapid test. He added that the sharp increase in positive results was also having an impact on the province’s contact tracing capacity. Dubé asked that anyone who receives a positive diagnosis take on the task of reaching out to those with whom they have been in close contact. Those individuals should then remain in isolation and use a rapid test.

Dubé then acknowledged that demand for the free rapid test kits being distributed through pharmacies had quickly outstripped supply on the first day they were available. Some local pharmacies did not receive an initial shipment of tests; however, it is expected that a steady supply will be delivered throughout the week to ensure as many as possible have access to the kits before the holidays. He asked that parents who had already received a kit through the school system avoid procuring them from pharmacies if possible to help maintain stocks for those who have not received any tests. He also clarified that for the rapid tests to work, users must be experiencing symptoms.

“I know it is tough, but now is not the time to be discouraged,” Dubé said, in an attempt to rally Quebecers for the ongoing battle to keep the Omicron variant at bay.

Uncertainty around return to school

“This feels like March 12, 2020 right now,” said New Frontiers School Board general director Rob Buttars, who admits the emergency closure of schools comes as unsettling news. “It is not as mysterious as it was before, and we are better prepared,” he added, noting the case load in Valley schools remains relatively calm.

At the moment, schools are planning to reopen as per government directive on January 10, with students expected to be learning from a distance at home on January 6 and 7. Teachers sent home as much material as possible with students on Monday given such little warning and uncertainty around the return to in-person learning.

“School will be back in January,” Buttars said, noting that the best thing parents and students can do is watch for communications from the schools as the situation evolves over the holidays. “We’ll be prepared to go online,” he said.

During the press conference, Dubé announced that emergency daycare services would be available to parents, with priority given to those working in essential fields. Buttars admitted however that there had yet to be any communication from the government about the availability or functioning of emergency daycare services. Buttars reiterated that the NFSB will communicate all information to parents as it becomes available, saying he hoped families will be able to rest and relax as much as possible over the holidays, despite the uncertain or worrying feelings of déjà vu that many are experiencing.

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