Quebec is imposing masks in high-school classrooms and suspending team sports in its COVID-19 infection “red zones," which include Montreal and Quebec City, as the province recorded more than 1,000 new cases for the fourth day in a row.
Meanwhile, Ontario’s provincial government, scrambling to address a massive testing backlog, maintained its stand against implementing tougher restrictions in virus hot spots – such as the four-week shutdown of indoor dining called for by Toronto’s medical officer of health. The rapid rise in infections in Toronto has forced public-health officials there to dramatically scale back efforts to track down people who have had contact with confirmed cases.
Quebec reported 1,191 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, the fourth day in a row there was an increase of more than 1,000. In its education system, the province said it now has 1,423 cases in total in 666 schools. (Ontario has 539 cases in 335 schools.)
“It’s a matter of life or death. We have to take actions, we have to make some sacrifices to slow the spread of the virus,” Quebec Premier François Legault said in a news briefing.
The Quebec government also announced that it now supports the federal COVID-19 alert smartphone application. Quebec initially didn’t want to sign on to the system immediately. On Monday, Mr. Legault downloaded the app on his phone in front of journalists and called on two pop celebrities, Marie-Mai and Julie Snyder, to encourage their fans to use the app.
The changes for Quebec’s schools apply to Quebec City, Montreal and its suburb, Laval – areas labelled “red” under the province’s COVID-19 alert system and where most of the province’s population lives. They come into force on Thursday and are to stay in place until Oct. 28, the scheduled end of Quebec’s “red zone” lockdown period.
Unlike Ontario, where students past Grade 4 are already required to wear masks in class and some school boards (including the Toronto District School Board) have mandated them for all ages, Quebec until now only required face coverings while riding school buses and in school hallways and common rooms.
In other changes, Grade 10 and 11 classes in Quebec will switch to a hybrid model, where students only attend in person on alternate days in order to reduce numbers in school and on buses. Extracurricular activities and team sports will also be suspended, and universities and junior colleges have been told to switch to online learning when possible.
The government’s decision was challenged by the Association of Pediatricians of Quebec, which said the real problem is COVID-19 transmission in the community and warned that asking teenagers to stay home every two days could fuel school dropouts, mental-health problems and cyberaddiction.
Quebec Director of Public Health Horacio Arruda acknowledged the concerns: “It’s not an easy balancing act. There’s no decision that doesn’t have a downside.”
In Ontario, the long lines that used to surround COVID-19 testing centres were gone Monday, after the province last week shut off access for walk-in patients and said it would start appointment-only testing across the province on Tuesday. But according to the websites of some busy Toronto assessment centres on Monday, all available appointments for the next two days were already taken.
Ontario’s aim was to create time to catch up on its massive testing backlog, which had grown to 90,000 samples that could not be processed last week – more than two days' worth of tests at its current rate. On Monday, the province said it had 615 new cases of COVID-19, after processing 38,196 tests, well shy of its stated target of 50,000 tests a day. It also confirmed that samples from pharmacies are being sent to U.S. labs.
Meanwhile, Toronto Medical Officer of Health Eileen de Villa repeated her pleas for the Ontario government to bring in stricter measures than the new crowd-size limits and other rules it announced last week. Rapidly rising cases in Toronto, The Globe and Mail revealed over the weekend, have prompted Toronto Public Health to stop tracking down the contacts of most confirmed cases and only focus efforts on high-risk patients.
The Ontario Hospital Association and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario have both backed Dr. de Villa, warning that hospitals in hot spots could be overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.
But Ontario Premier Doug Ford and provincial Chief Medical Officer of Health David Williams said Monday they were not willing to shut down indoor dining in Toronto, which would harm many small businesses, without more evidence.
“I have to see the evidence before I take someone’s livelihood away from them and shut their lives down,” Mr. Ford said at his daily briefing, where he pledged $35-million in extra COVID-19-related funding for Ontario schools in virus hot spots.
Ottawa’s Medical Officer of Health Vera Etches warned the health care system is entering “crisis territory,” urging residents to limit close contacts to their households. She also said people should only be going to restaurants and bars with those they live with. But Dr. Etches stopped short of echoing Dr. de Villa’s call for widespread closings, saying it’s up to elected officials to balance the risks.
“That is a very serious decision that has economic consequences for the health of our economy and our population,” she said. “It’s effective, it stops COVID transmission when people can’t gather. But it has other harms.”
Ottawa is also experiencing contact-tracing woes, Dr. Etches said. Although Ottawa Public Health reaches out to those who test positive for COVID-19 within 24 hours, it is not able to follow-up with all close contacts. The city is now shifting to an online data-collection tool for lower-risk people to enter their own information about contacts and symptoms, she said.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asked Monday about the controversy over expensive, private COVID-19 testing being offered by private companies in Ontario, said he would speak with his Health Minister about it.
“It is foundational to Canada that everyone has access to health care," Mr. Trudeau said.
With a report from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa
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