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Quebec is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations driven by new Omicron subvariants that account for about 75 per cent of infections, the province’s public-health director said this week.

Dr. Luc Boileau said the subvariants, such as BA2.12.1, BA.5 and BA.4, appear to be more transmissible than previous strains but not necessarily more severe. The rise in cases was “expected,” though it came earlier than authorities had thought, he said, adding that the number of new infections should continue to rise in the coming days or weeks before declining.

Dr. Boileau said the province doesn’t plan on reimposing any broad-level public-health restrictions, but he recommended that people who are over 65 or medically vulnerable take precautions such as wearing a mask. He was firm in his advice against a new provincewide masking order, insisting that such a measure was not “realistic” or necessary at this point.

“We’re not at all on a path to reimpose population-level measures such as mask-wearing, or other measures that needed to be taken in the last two years,” he said.

“We’re not there, and we’re not heading in that direction with the current variants.”

He said people who are over the age of 60, who are immunocompromised or who have chronic illnesses should seek a second booster shot if they haven’t had one or if their last shot was more than three months ago. As well, he said those who want to wear masks should be “encouraged” to do so, especially in crowded places.

His update came as COVID-19 hospitalizations rose by 34 in the previous 24 hours, after a 113-patient rise the day before. There were 1,260 people in hospital with COVID-19 in Quebec, including 35 in intensive care. Health officials also reported four more deaths associated with the novel coronavirus.

Dr. Don Vinh of the McGill University Health Centre says Quebec is facing a “perfect storm” of factors that include the emergence of new variants, waning immunity from vaccination or previous infection, and the removal of public-health restrictions.

The new Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, he said in an interview Tuesday, appear to be gaining ground and finding vulnerable people to infect, especially since the mutations seem to be better able to evade immunity compared with previous strains.

“You put the two together, the new variants and waning immunity from either infection, immunization or a hybrid, and what happens is you have a renewed pool of susceptible people with an emerging variant,” he said.

The rise in hospitalizations, he added, comes at a time when the health system is least prepared to handle it.

Hospital workers at “all levels” are overwhelmed, he said, from paramedics and ambulance drivers to ER staff and the community and home care workers who need to be present to care for frail people leaving hospital.

COVID-19 is also putting increased pressure on the system by forcing sick health care workers to stay home at a time when they’re most needed, he said. “This a catastrophic, systemic failure being unmasked and perhaps even exacerbated by unmitigated community transmission.”

On Wednesday, Dr. Boileau said he was concerned with the effect the increase in cases will have on the system, adding that authorities were working with hospitals to readjust services when necessary. He said, however, that he didn’t expect the new rise in cases to get “very, very high” and that the numbers should begin to decline in the next few weeks.

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