La santé

COVID live updates: Doctors ‘concerned’ about Quebec plan to lift mask mandates, professional order says – Montreal Gazette

Starting Friday, vaccinated travellers to Canada will no longer need a test.

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Updated throughout the day on Thursday, March 31. Questions/comments: ariga@postmedia.com

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Top updates

  • U.K. warned about danger of cutting back on COVID testing
  • Federal guidance on fourth dose of COVID vaccine expected in early April
  • Doctors ‘concerned’ about Quebec plan to lift mask mandates, professional order says
  • Starting Friday, vaccinated travellers to Canada don’t need a COVID-19 test
  • Expand access to PCR tests, Quebec opposition parties say
  • No new COVID restrictions: ‘We are concerned, but it was foreseen,’ Dubé says
  • Two weeks ago, Dubé said he didn’t expect 6th wave until at least August or September
  • Cases, hospitalizations continue to rise as Quebec reports 12 new deaths
  • Videos: Dubé stays the course as sixth wave hits
  • Quebec will not add restrictions despite rising cases, hospitalizations, Dubé says
  • Province now officially in pandemic’s sixth wave, INSPQ says
  • Quebec health reforms still rattle veteran nurse
  • Alberta will wait on measures as province sees COVID-19 uptick
  • London COVID hospital cases rise to almost two-month high
  • Governments want COVID vaccine developers to aim higher in hunt for better shots
  • Quebec COVID guide: Vaccinations, testing
  • Sign up for our free nightly coronavirus newsletter

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4 p.m.

Thanks for reading

I’ll be back tomorrow with another live blog.

In the meantime, you can follow all our coverage via the coronavirus page.

My previous COVID-19 live blogs are available here.


3:40 p.m.

U.K. warned about danger of cutting back on COVID testing

The United Kingdom’s chief medical officer and other scientists warned that they must be able to keep tabs on COVID-19, raising concern about the government’s plan to cut back on free coronavirus tests.

In the early days of the pandemic, “we didn’t know how much disease there was and where” and gaining testing abilities “transformed things,” Chris Whitty said at a conference on the future of COVID Thursday. He expressed concern about “keeping the ability to survey to understand where we are.”

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The comments came on the day Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government plans to end the availability of free tests. It’s already scrapped all pandemic restrictions but is now seeing a fresh increase in virus infections. Daily cases are averaging above 80,000, more than double the rate at the start of March.

Others at the conference, including Peter Openshaw, an immunologist at Imperial College London, and Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, also said tests remain vital at this stage in the pandemic.

“The key to epidemiology is data, and maintaining that data stream is absolutely vital,” Openshaw said at the event, organized by the Royal Society of Medicine. “Letting testing go — I’m quite concerned about that,” Sridhar said.

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Hospital admissions for COVID have also risen, though they remain below the peak, according to government figures. In London hospitals, the number of patients testing positive has increased to the highest in almost two months.

Most people in England will have to pay for virus tests from Friday. It’s part of a shift in many countries to “living with COVID” policies, with governments showing no intention of reimposing health and social restrictions even amid the new wave of cases.

As testing is scaled back, the World Health Organization has warned that this will limit its ability to track the virus and the evolution of variants.

The latest increase in cases is being driven by the highly infectious omicron BA.2 subvariant. Changes in behaviour may also be accelerating transmission, with more people returning to normal life, travelling, and working less from home.

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2:50 p.m.

Federal guidance on fourth dose of COVID vaccine expected in early April

The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is expected to release guidance on fourth doses of COVID-19 vaccine in early April as public health indicators tick up across Canada, The Canadian Press reports.

A spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada said Thursday that the agency expects to publish NACI’s advice on fourth doses for “elderly populations at higher risk of severe disease” in the coming days.

Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott, meanwhile, told legislators Thursday that she expects to receive advice from NACI imminently.

“We’re working on the booster shots and we’re also examining whether a fourth shot is necessary… We’re waiting for NACI’s advice … about what age group should be receiving the fourth vaccination, if necessary,” she said.

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“We are actively moving on this and we’re continuing with our plan across the province of Ontario.”

NACI previously recommended that people who are “moderately to severely immunocompromised” receive a fourth dose of the vaccine six months after getting their third shot.

The committee says that data on the fourth dose is currently limited, but those who are immunocompromised are at higher risk both of severe outcomes of COVID-19 and of decreasing protection over time.

Earlier this week, U.S. regulators approved a fourth dose for Americans 50 and older if it’s been at least four months since their last vaccination.

The Food and Drug Administration gave the measure the green light on Tuesday, and the Centers for Disease Control later recommended the extra shot as an option but stopped short of urging that those eligible rush to make an appointment.

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The question of extra boosters has become more pressing to some due to concerning public health indicators.

Hospitalizations have started rising in some regions and wastewater trends suggest cases are too after many provinces ditched their vaccine passports and mask mandates this month.


2:30 p.m.

Germany plans to relax COVID quarantine rules as cases soar

Germany plans to end mandatory quarantine for most people who catch COVID-19, the health ministry proposed on Thursday, as numbers isolating with the infection top four million.

Read our full story.


2:30 p.m.

Shanghai to expand lockdown to most residents as COVID cases rise

Shanghai is set to put the vast majority of its residents under COVID lockdown from Friday, as it expands curbs to include the western half of the city and extends restrictions in the east where people have already been forced to stay home since Monday.

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Read our full story.


2:30 p.m.

WHO: Pfizer vaccine potentially linked to hearing loss

The World Health Organization has published a report citing extremely rare instances of hearing loss and other auditory issues following injection of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The WHO reported 367 cases of tinnitus and 164 cases of hearing loss among the 11 billion vaccines administered — with onset ranging from a few minutes to 19 days, but most commonly within a day of the jab.

Read our full story.


2 p.m.

Doctors ‘concerned’ about Quebec plan to lift mask mandates, professional order says

Quebec’s professional order of physicians says it’s concerned about the province’s plan to lift mask mandates by mid-April.

Via Twitter, the Collège des médecins du Québec said that as the sixth wave takes hold, “we are concerned about the planned removal of the obligation to wear a mask in public places.

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“The situation is changing rapidly and the mask remains one of the most effective measures to limit the spread. Let’s be careful, let’s protect ourselves.”

Mask mandates are the only remaining restrictions in Quebec. The province says it plans to drop most mask restrictions by mid-April, at which point they would only be mandatory in public transit.

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1:30 p.m.

Starting Friday, vaccinated travellers to Canada don’t need a COVID-19 test

From The Canadian Press:

Vaccinated travellers will no longer need a COVID-19 test to enter Canada as of Friday, April 1.

The change is a departure from Canada’s policy since the early days of the pandemic, and the struggling tourism industry describes it as a major boon.

Travel agents say they’ve seen a surge in demand for flights since the change was announced two weeks ago.

Domestic tourism groups also report a big bump in bookings over the last few weeks.

While no test will be required after April 1 for people who are considered fully vaccinated, Health Canada still requires that anyone arriving from outside the country wear a mask in public for two weeks.

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The rules for unvaccinated Canadians and other travellers who are exempt from the vaccine requirement remain unchanged, and those people will still need to provide a negative test, or evidence enough time has passed after infection, to enter the country.

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1:15 p.m.

Expand access to PCR tests, Quebec opposition parties say

Two opposition parties are calling on Premier François Legault’s government to expand access to PCR testing amid the pandemic’s sixth wave.

Quebec severely limited access to laboratory screening amid the fifth wave when testing clinics couldn’t keep up with demand. It’s now limited to only certain segments of the population, including health workers and people age 70 and older who have symptoms.

The province has told other Quebecers to use home rapid tests, the results of which are only tracked via a self-reporting website.

“What is disappointing is that the government has stopped the whole screening approach by PCR test, which means that we do not have the appropriate indicators to see the extent of the current wave, whether in the regions or in Montreal,” Parti Québécois health critic Joël Arseneau told reporters this morning.

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He called on the government to allow more people to get tested at PCR screening clinics “to ensure that we can see the magnitude of the wave that’s coming.”

That sentiment was echoed by Liberal health critic Monsef Derraji at a separate news conference.

“It is absolutely necessary to expand the use of PCR tests,” he said. “Today, the … PCR is only available to people at high risk, to populations at risk, I think it is time to review this decision.”


12:45 p.m.

No new COVID restrictions: ‘We are concerned, but it was foreseen,’ Dubé says

Following up on my earlier live coverage, here’s our story, by Philip Authier in Quebec City, on what Health Minister Christian Dubé had to say today about the sixth wave.


12:05 p.m.

Two weeks ago, Dubé said he didn’t expect 6th wave until at least August or September

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Yesterday, public health officials confirmed that Quebec is in the midst of the pandemic’s sixth wave, estimating that it began around mid-March.

That’s around the time that Health Minister Christian Dubé said the province only expected to face the risk of a sixth wave in August or September at the earliest.

He made the comments on March 16, after a reporter asked if Quebec expected a sixth wave of COVID. “It’s a possibility but it’s a possibility that we can manage right now,” Dubé answered.

He said Quebec public health officials were monitoring the situation elsewhere. “They’re very clear” that “we’re OK” at the moment for several reasons, Dubé said.

He noted many Quebecers obtained some immunity via infection during the Omicron wave, the province has a high vaccination rate, and the disease tends to abate as the weather improves.

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“But (public health officials) say also that if there is a risk, there is a risk that could be in August or September,” Dubé said.

“What we’ve learned during the last five waves is that we need to be ready,” he said, adding that’s why the government has to retain some emergency powers until the end of the year.

He added: “Everyone wants to make sure that we will be ready if ever there is a sixth wave in the fall.”


11:45 a.m.

Chart: Current situation vs. one year ago


11:45 a.m.

Charts: Quebec cases, deaths


11:45 a.m.

Charts: Quebec’s vaccination campaign


11:05 a.m.

Cases, hospitalizations continue to rise as Quebec reports 12 new deaths

Quebec has recorded 3,319 new cases of COVID-19, the provincial government announced this morning.

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That’s 252 more than yesterday.

The case tally only includes people who received PCR tests at government screening clinics. It does not accurately reflect the number of cases since it does not include the results of home rapid tests.

Hospitalizations continue to rise and are at their highest level in just over three weeks.

In addition, 12 new deaths were reported, bringing the cumulative total to 14,365.

Vaccination is ramping up now that Quebec has expanded eligibility for fourth doses. The number of shots administered yesterday was the highest in more than five weeks.

Some other key statistics from Quebec’s latest COVID-19 update:

  • Montreal Island: 653 cases, 3 deaths.
  • Net increase in hospitalizations: 38, for total of 1,238 (151 entered hospital, 113 discharged).
  • Net increase in intensive care patients: 6, for total of 66 (15 entered ICUs, 9 discharged).
  • 19,860 PCR tests conducted Tuesday.
  • 17,145 vaccine doses administered over previous 24 hours.

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10:55 a.m.

Videos: Dubé stays the course as sixth wave hits

Ending emergency decree as sixth wave begins isn’t contradictory, minister says

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As cases and hospitalizations rise again, Quebec won’t add restrictions

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10 a.m.

Quebec will not add restrictions despite rising cases, hospitalizations, Dubé says

Quebec does not plan to reimpose COVID-19 restrictions, Health Minister Christian Dubé says.

He made the comment at a Quebec City press conference this morning, a day after public health officials acknowledged the province is officially in the sixth wave of the pandemic.

“Of course, we’re concerned about the rise in cases and hospitalizations but at the same time I remind you that it was expected” after the province lifted most pandemic measures, Dubé said.

However, he said, the pace at which the highly contagious BA.2 Omicron subvariant is spreading is faster than anticipated. BA.2 now represents more than 65 per cent of cases in Quebec

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Dubé said the biggest impact of the subvariant’s proliferation is in the province’s regions outside Montreal. Those areas include the Côte-Nord, Abitibi-Témiscamingue and regions east of Quebec City.

That’s because those areas did not experience high transmission rates during the fifth wave between December and February, he added, so there are more people there who are susceptible to infection now.

He urged vulnerable people, including older Quebecers, to be extra cautious, especially those in the regions.

But Dubé said there is no plan to add provincewide or regional restrictions.

“There is no reason at the moment to change our strategy because people have to learn to live with the virus (and) continue to protect themselves,” he said.

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Mask mandates are the only remaining restrictions in Quebec. The province says it plans to drop most mask restrictions by mid-April, at which point they would only be mandatory in public transit.

Is Quebec rethinking its plan to lift mask rules?

Dubé didn’t answer directly. He said the government will abide by recommendations from Dr. Luc Boileau, the interim public health director.

“We’ll get back to you in the coming days,” Dubé said.


9:30 a.m.

Quebec now officially in pandemic’s sixth wave, INSPQ says

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increasing once again, Quebec’s public health institute confirmed Wednesday the province has entered the sixth wave of the pandemic.

However, it’s unlikely the increase in cases and hospitalizations will reach the heights experienced in December and early January, said the Institut national de santé publique du Québec’s Dr. Gaston De Serres.

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“There are several reasons why, but there are two main ones: the first is that a lot of people have been infected since December and that increases immunity,” De Serres explained. “There are also a lot of people who have gone to get their third dose, which wasn’t the case when the Omicron wave started.”

Read our full story, by Jesse Feith.


9:30 a.m.

Quebec health reforms still rattle veteran nurse

Montreal nurse Nathan Friedland believes much bigger changes have to come to bring reform to health-care system.

Read our full story, by Bill Brownstein.


9:30 a.m.

Alberta will wait on measures as province sees COVID-19 uptick

Alberta’s health minister says the province will wait before considering new COVID-19 measures as cases rise in Calgary and Edmonton.

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During the weekly COVID-19 update, Health Minister Jason Copping said the province’s positivity rate and wastewater data both show signs of rising transmission, but had little to say about any potential response plan.

Read our full story.


9:20 a.m.

London COVID hospital cases rise to almost two-month high

From the Bloomberg news agency:

The number of patients in London hospitals testing positive for COVID-19 has risen to the highest in almost two months.

There were 2,330 people in the U.K. capital’s hospitals who had the virus on Wednesday, the most since Feb. 3, according to data from NHS England. The figures showed that 563 patients were treated primarily for COVID-19 while the others were admitted for other reasons.

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Hospitalizations remain far below the recent winter-peak in early January, with just over 100 patients on mechanical ventilation.

The rise in admissions follow a spike in new infections after the government ended pandemic rules in England at the end of February.

A survey by the Office for National Statistics published last week found that more than 3.4 million people in England had the virus in the week through March 19, the equivalent of about one in 16.


9:20 a.m.

Governments want COVID vaccine developers to aim higher in hunt for better shots

As governments prepare to live with COVID-19, some are questioning how much to rely on drugmakers to adapt vaccines to ward off future virus variants amid signs of tension between companies and regulators over the best approach, according to several sources familiar with the matter.

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Read our full story.


9:15 a.m.

Quebec COVID guide: Vaccinations, testing

Vaccinations

Testing


8:30 a.m.

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ariga@postmedia.com

Read my previous live blogs here.


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