Quebec tops 5,000 COVID-19 cases as hospitalizations continue to climb

MONTREAL — Quebec’s spiralling number of daily COVID-19 infections hit a new high on Tuesday for the third straight day as new data showed the highly contagious Omicron variant accounting for nearly 80 per cent of new cases.

The record 5,043 new cases came one day after the province imposed a series of strict measures aimed at slowing the spread of the disease, including an order for bars, gyms and concert halls to close.

That order hit bar owners “like a hammer blow to the head,” said Renaud Poulin, the CEO of a Quebec bar owner’s association.

Poulin said many bar owners expected that restrictions introduced last week — including reducing capacity to 50 per cent and banning dancing and karaoke — would be the only measures affecting their business over the holidays, particularly given that all bar customer must be double vaccinated.

For the members of the Corporation des propriétaires des bars, brasseries et tavernes du Québec, the new restrictions will likely mean taking on debt, Poulin said in an interview Tuesday, because government support programs only cover a portion of fixed costs.

He said he understands that Quebecers’ health is the most important priority. “But we’re saying to the politicians, there has to be more support for the entrepreneurs, it’s not enough,” he said. “These people, they’re going to pay the price for everyone.” 

He’s also worried about workers and expects many will leave the industry for more stable occupations at a time when bars already face a shortage of workers.

“It’s difficult for the employees to lose their jobs one week before Christmas,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think the $300 a week in government assistance offered to affected workers is enough for them to live on.

The rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 infections — a week ago, health officials reported 1,747 new cases — comes as the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus continues to spread in the province.

The Institut national de santé publique du Québec said Tuesday that 78.6 per cent of screening tests for coronavirus variants conducted on Sunday suggested the presence of the Omicron variant, compared to 21.4 per cent for the Delta variant. A week earlier, the Delta variant was found in 78.2 per cent of screening tests, while Omicron was found in 21.8 per cent of tests.

Quebec screened all positive COVID-19 tests for the Omicron variant on Dec. 14, finding 547 possible cases out of 1947 positive tests, the institute said. On Nov. 30, when a similar screening was conducted, no Omicron cases were detected. 

The Health Department said Tuesday the number of hospitalizations had risen by 18 from the day before, to 415, with 59 new admissions and 41 patients discharged. It said 88 people were in intensive care, an increase of six. 

Health Minister Christian Dubé said 315,000 people made an appointment to get vaccinated on Monday, and more than 73,000 received a dose, including 64,000 booster shots.

Nadia Talbot, a spokeswoman for the office of Premier François Legault, said Quebec is looking for ways to accelerate its vaccination campaign, and while the province has not yet formally requested help from the Canadian Forces, such a request has not been ruled out.

Legault wrote on Twitter Tuesday that Quebec like other jurisdictions faces “very difficult choices,” adding that he would have more to say on Wednesday. “What guides us is the capacity we will or won’t have to care for sick Quebecers in the coming weeks,” he said.

In Montreal, Mayor Valérie Plante reintroduced a state of emergency Tuesday, which had been lifted in August.

“With the state of emergency, we will be able to purchase protective and screening equipment for essential workers,” she said, adding that it will also make it easier for the city to set up emergency shelters for people experiencing homelessness.

According to the province’s public health institute, the city’s 8,033 active COVID-19 cases are the most of any region in Quebec, but the institute says the Estrie region, east of Montreal, is the most affected region on a per capita basis.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 21, 2021.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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