Quebec reports fewest new COVID-19 cases since September as it prepares to reopen

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MONTREAL — Quebec reported 551 new COVID-19 cases Monday, the lowest daily number since September and one day before the government is scheduled to announce its reopening plan.

Only Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have lower infection rates compared with Quebec's 85 active cases per 100,000 people, according to federal data. Health experts say multiple factors have led Quebec — once the most affected province during the pandemic — to be a Canadian leader in controlling the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Catherine Hankins, co-chair of Canada's COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, said she thinks Quebec's early decision to delay the interval between vaccine doses likely played a role. That decision was originally intended to prevent COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths, but Hankins said there's a growing body of evidence that vaccination also prevents transmission.

"If you've had one dose, you're less likely to get infected and if you do get infected, you're less likely to be hospitalized, to go to ICU and to die, plus, you're less likely to transmit to other people in your household," Hankins, who is also a professor of public and population health at McGill University, said in an interview Monday.

The level of vaccination in Quebec, where 49 per cent of adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, is also playing a role in controlling the pandemic, she added.

Simon de Montigny, a public health professor at Université de Montréal, said that while vaccination has reduced hospitalizations and deaths, he's not sure a high enough percentage of Quebecers have been vaccinated to prevent cases from spreading.

"While we're getting there, it's not sufficient to stem the problems from transmission," he said.

What has allowed Montreal — once the Canadian epicentre of the pandemic — to avoid a third wave is the city's experience suffering through the first two waves, he said. The health-care system was able learn from past mistakes and develop best practices, he added.

"Having knowledge and putting it into practice is a different thing," de Montigny said. "Having faced this before is important."

Hankins said she thinks public health officials in Quebec have done "some really great things" in recent months.

"Public health in Montreal strengthened their testing, tracing, isolation measures," she said, adding that officials have also taken innovative approaches, such as vaccinating parents and teachers in schools where coronavirus variants were identified.

While Hankins said Quebecers have "chafed" at the public health restrictions — including the province's nighttime curfew — they have mostly obeyed the rules. "The curfew, it was introduced without scientific evidence and it's difficult to say how much of a role its played, but it sent a message."

Hankins said she hopes the reopening plan that will be announced Tuesday will be gradual. "We're learning as we go, and when safer to do things, we will do so, but it's not a licence to have mask-burning parties at this stage," she said.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States has said fully vaccinated people don't need to wear masks in most settings, both Hankins and de Montigny warn that Canada isn't there yet.

"They're in a different stage of the epidemic; they have higher vaccination levels," Hankins said.

With warmer weather and people more likely to gather outside, where the risk of transmission is much lower, de Montigny said it's likely that Montreal has avoided a third wave. But with the continued spread of variants, he said he hopes the reopening plan is cautious.

"We need to be very prudent not to waste that advantage that we have right now," he said.

Earlier on Monday, the Health Department said the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations fell by seven, to 501, and that there were three fewer people in intensive care, for a total of 116. Officials also reported eight more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including two in the past 24 hours.

The province said 71,701 doses of vaccine were administered Sunday, for a total of 4,396,507.

Quebec has reported a total of 363,847 COVID-19 cases and 11,042 deaths linked to the virus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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