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Quebec Premier Francois Legault speaks to reporters during a news conference at the legislature, in Quebec City, on April 30, 2020.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec Premier Francois Legault sought to reassure Quebecers on Thursday that the province isn’t opening up too quickly, while also preparing them to expect a lot more COVID-19-related deaths in the coming days and weeks.

Legault’s government plans to reopen schools and retail stores ahead of most other provinces, and he told reporters Thursday that he understands Quebecers are worried about Montreal, in particular.

An outbreak of COVID-19 is occurring in the northern part of the city, home to a concentration of lower-income people who live in crowded apartments. At least three Montreal hospitals are dealing with outbreaks and the emergency rooms of other medical centres in the city are beginning to see overcrowding.

But businesses are only set to reopen in Montreal on May 11, Legault said, adding that if public health authorities determine the city’s hospitals cannot cope with an eventual increase in cases that will come with a loosening of restrictions, he’ll delay his plan.

The premier also tried to assuage concerns that politics – namely pressure to reopen and boost the economy – was overriding public health concerns.

“I want to reassure certain people of the independence of Dr. (Horacio) Arruda,” Legault said, referring to the province’s director of public health, who has sat by his side for weeks during the premier’s daily news conferences.

“I listen to him as if he was my mother,” Legault mused. “I have no undue influence on him.”

Opening up the province will also come with increased testing, Legault said. Quebec currently conducts about 6,000 COVID-19 tests per day, but by next week, the province will increase its capacity to 14,500 tests per day, the premier said.

And while he tried to reassure a skittish public, the premier also sought to prepare people for will likely be a tough few weeks ahead for long-term care homes, which are the source of 65 per cent of the province’s COVID-19 deaths.

Quebec reported 98 new deaths Thursday, for a total of 1,859, and Legault said 92 of them occurred in care homes.

There are still 4,400 patients in long-term care and other senior residences who are infected with COVID-19, he said.

“We will do everything to try and save the maximum, but we have to be realistic,” Legault said. “It’s clear there will continue to be a lot of death, unfortunately, over the coming days and weeks.”

The province recorded 944 new cases Thursday, bringing the total to 27,538, but Quebec saw a reduction of patients in intensive care – a number that has been relatively stable for weeks.

It is unclear what percentage of the hundreds of new cases reported every day originate from long-term care homes and from health-care workers, as opposed to originating from the rest of the population. Those figures aren’t readily available and a spokesperson from Montreal’s public health authority did not return a request for comment.

According to the available figures, Montreal-Nord is the borough with the highest number of cases of COVID-19, with 1,153. Authorities said they would open a testing centre in the district on Friday for anyone with symptoms.

The borough is home to many health-care workers such as nurses and orderlies, and Arruda said up to 200 workers may have brought home the virus from their jobs in long-term care homes.

“There is a hot spot over there,” Arruda said about Montreal-Nord. “There is a quantity of health workers…. There is high risk of vulnerability there because of socio-economic levels and of crowding of people in families.”

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