MONTREAL — A novel coronavirus variant could cause cases in the Montreal area to explode by the end of April if residents don't strictly adhere to health orders, according to new modelling by the province's public health institute.
The modelling released Thursday by the Institut national de sante publique du Quebec and Universite Laval suggested the B.1.1.7 mutation — first identified in the United Kingdom — is likely to become the predominant strain in the province by the middle of next month.
People's behaviour, however, will determine the speed of the variant's rise, the institute said. "The extent of the increase in variant cases would depend on adherence to measures during and after the spring break and superspreader events," read the institute's report.
"Vaccination coverage for people over 70 and health workers should not be sufficient to control the rise in cases linked to a new variant by May, since they represent less than 20 per cent of the population."
The modelling suggested that a "strong" adherence to public health measures both during and after this week's spring break could allow the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths to remain stable until the end of April.
A "medium" respect of measures — defined as a 50-to-100 per cent reduction in home visits and increased contacts in workplaces and during sports and leisure activities — could cause cases to rise sharply. Hospitalizations and deaths are expected to follow more slowly because many of the most vulnerable are protected by vaccination, the projections found.
The variant is not expected to spread as rapidly outside the greater Montreal area because of the lower level of community transmission.
Health Minister Christian Dube described the projections in a Twitter message as "stable, but very concerning," especially in Montreal. "A medium adherence to the measures would have as an impact to bring hospitalizations back to the level we were at in the worst month of January," he wrote.
COVID-19-related hospitalizations surpassed 1,500 in January. "That's exactly why we're asking Quebecers not to relax their efforts," he added.
Another report released Thursday by the Quebec government health and social services institute found that hospitalizations have stabilized after a sustained drop earlier in 2021. The report by the Institut national d’excellence en sante et en services sociaux indicated hospitalizations will likely remain stable for the next three to four weeks.
"Beyond this period, the evolution of this trend could be different with an increasing presence of more contagious or more virulent variants," the report said.
The report, which was written Feb. 28 but released Thursday, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic in the province is largely concentrated in Montreal and the surrounding regions, where 85 per cent or more of Quebec's new cases and hospitalizations originate.
On Wednesday, Premier Francois Legault announced that restrictions would be eased in much of the province but maintained in Montreal and the surrounding areas, including Laval and the South Shore.
While Montrealers will continue to be forbidden to leave their homes after 8 p.m., residents of four other regions including Quebec City will be able to eat at restaurants, work out at the gym and stay out until 9:30 p.m. starting Monday.
Despite the risk posed by variants, the report on hospitals suggested that the province's health-care institutions remain in relatively good shape for the coming weeks. It noted that about a third of the regular beds and half the intensive care beds in the Montreal region designated for COVID-19 patients are occupied, and that hospital capacity is not expected to be surpassed in the next three weeks.
The report found that while the institute's past projections have generally been accurate, they become less precise when predicting more than three weeks ahead.
While the number of confirmed variant cases across the province remained stable at 137 on Thursday, the number of presumptive cases rose to 1,353, an increase of 133.
The Quebec government reported 707 new cases of COVID-19 and 20 more deaths attributed to the virus. Hospitalizations have gone up slightly in the province for four of the past five days. On Thursday, they rose by eight, to 626, while the number of people in intensive care dropped by five, to 115.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2021.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press