La santé

Quebec shuts down schools, bars, gyms and more as COVID-19 case counts soar

Quebec is closing schools, bars, gyms and movie theatres as public health officials race to slow the spread of the Omicron variant. 

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said in the face of the variant, which appears to be doubling its spread every couple days, the government had to take action to prevent the health-care system from being overwhelmed. 

“The epidemiological situation is critical. The community spread is astounding,” said Dubé during the Monday news conference, appearing from home alongside public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda and Daniel Paré, who is in charge of Quebec’s vaccination campaign. 

“Our health system is already in crisis … and things aren’t getting better. Hospitalizations and intensive care unit admissions are on the rise.”

Schools close

Elementary and high schools will close early Monday, with students set to return to in-person learning on Jan. 10. That means primary school students will have a longer holiday, and high school students will switch to remote learning when classes are set to resume in the New Year.

Adult and professional education centres will also close. 

Elementary school buildings will remain open only for vaccination campaigns and the distribution of rapid test kits. School daycare services will also continue to operate for parents who need them, prioritizing parents who work in the health-care sector. Private and provincially-run daycares will also remain open.

Bars, gyms, movie theatres, concert venues and spas must close as of 5 p.m. Monday. Restaurants will have to reduce their capacity to 50 per cent and limit their hours from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. Professional sports games will have to be played without spectators.

Working from home is now being mandated for all non-essential workers, including civil servants. The provincial government is pausing all ministerial public activities, such as news conferences that are not related to COVID-19. 

WATCH | Situation in Quebec ‘critical,’ says health minister: 

Situation in Quebec ‘critical,’ says health minister

Quebec is closing businesses and schools to protect residents and the health system amid an alarming jump in cases of the Omicron variant. 2:20

‘Limit your contacts’

Dubé said more measures could be announced in the coming days.

Gatherings of up to 10 people from a maximum of three households are still permitted, but not recommended — and that number could change, officials warned.

“What we’re asking is that you limit your contacts to absolute minimum,” said the health minister.

Hours before the announcement, Quebec reported a record number of cases for the past 24 hours, with 4,571 new cases, three more deaths and 21 more people in hospital. 

Hospitalizations, at 397, are already higher than half of the province’s capacity, which is at 671. Dubé said the system’s low capacity is not due to a lack of beds, but a serious lack of personnel, many of whom are on leave or have left altogether. 

Though the severity of the disease caused by the Omicron variant is not fully known, its high rate of transmission will lead to more hospitalizations in a short amount of time, no matter what, Dubé said. 

“We are eight million people in Quebec. We are at war. We’re at war right now against this virus,” he said. “This is du jamais vu, this has never been seen before. It’s unbelievable. The only way to manage this crisis is to react as quickly as possible with the resources that are available.”

Quebecers line up outside a Familiprix in Quebec City in a bid to get a rapid test. (Hadi Hassin/Radio-Canada)

Certain populations prioritized for boosters  

Several hospitals are once again postponing non-urgent surgeries. Laval’s Cité-de-la-Santé Hospital has reported two outbreaks, with a total of six employees testing positive so far. 

Thursday, projections from the provincial government health-care research institute, INESSS, showed as many as 700 Quebecers could be in hospital due to the virus by early January, with about 160 of them in intensive care.

Paré, the head of the province’s vaccination campaign, says Quebec is trying to speed up third-dose vaccinations, but needs more people to give the shots and is prioritizing older populations, health-care workers, at-risk populations and long-term care home residents.

Pharmacies have slowly begun to receive and distribute rapid test kits, prompting long lines and websites for several pharmacy chains to crash as people attempted to book appointments to pick them up. 

WATCH | A slow start for Quebec’s distribution of rapid test in pharmacies: 

Rapid test demand outstrips early supply in Quebec

The CBC’s Kate McKenna in Montreal joined the early-birds hoping to score free COVID-19 rapid tests at pharmacies, but she found long lines and uncertainty over how many tests were available today. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press) 1:34