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Students get ready for class at an elementary school in Montreal, on Jan. 18.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

Wearing masks to protect against COVID-19 could become a matter of “personal choice,” rather than an obligation, as early as the end of the month, Quebec’s interim public health said Thursday.

Luc Boileau told reporters he was encouraged by a steady drop in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and outbreaks of the disease, adding that recent projections by health care research institutes suggested the situation in the province would continue to improve. Based on that data, the government could lift mask mandates by late March, he added.

On Wednesday, the Health Department issued a news release stating that mask mandates could be lifted in most public places by mid-April “at the latest.”

Dr. Boileau said that while there’s still a risk from COVID-19, especially for immunocompromised people, it will soon no longer be feasible to require everyone to wear masks because of the few who are more at risk than others.

“It’s kind of impossible to ask a whole population of 8.5 million people to continue to wear masks to protect a part of them,” he said.

Masking, he said, would become a “personal choice in the context of a progression to a normal life,” but he added that “if there are people who feel more comfortable wearing a mask, of course they will be able to.”

The province will not backtrack, Dr. Boileau said, on its decision to remove most public health measures by March 12, including capacity limits at restaurants, bars and sports venues and the use of the vaccine passport system.

Dr. Boileau said masking will remain a good practice in some situations, especially when a person has symptoms of COVID-19 or is in contact with someone who has a compromised immune system. Mask mandates will continue to be enforced in hospitals and health care settings, he added.

As well, he said the government will not change the five-day isolation requirement for those who test positive for the disease.

Dr. Boileau said enough people have either been vaccinated or been infected with COVID-19 to make it possible to gradually remove restrictions, adding that the province will receive about 220,000 doses of the newly approved Novavax vaccine in the coming weeks. He said the protein-based vaccine could be an option for people who are reluctant to take an mRNA vaccine, such as the ones fabricated by Pfizer or Moderna.

Meanwhile, the province reported 24 more deaths linked to COVID-19 on Thursday, as well as a 17-person drop in the number of people hospitalized with the disease. COVID-19 hospitalizations fell to 1,364, while the number of people in intensive care dropped by six, to 76.

Dr. Boileau was also asked on Wednesday to weigh in on the government’s controversial decision to impose a curfew at the end of December. He said it was “nearly impossible” to isolate and measure the impact of the curfew in reducing transmission, because it was part of a “mixture” of measures that were brought in at the same time.

He stressed that he was not the one to suggest or impose a curfew, which was announced by his predecessor, but he said it was based on “observational studies” done elsewhere as well as the “very high level of risk” in hospitals, which were becoming overwhelmed.

Quebec imposed a five-month curfew in 2021, from January to May, and again for two weeks starting Dec. 31, 2021.

Dr. Boileau was also asked repeatedly about a Dec. 29, 2021, internal ethical review related to the curfew. The document was received by Radio-Canada through an access to information request – but the entirety of its contents was redacted.

The interim public health director said the decision to redact the information was not made by his office, which he said has “nothing to hide.”

“As far as I’m concerned, everything we did from the moment I took office was very transparent,” he said, adding that he didn’t know why the information was redacted.

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