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A woman walks by a sign advising of the mandatory wearing of masks and face coverings in Montreal, on Sept. 21, 2020.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The Quebec government will maintain its mask mandate until at least the end of the month instead of mid-April as previously planned, interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau said Tuesday.

Boileau told reporters in Quebec City he changed his recommendation due to the rise in the number of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. He said he’s also worried about the high number of health-care workers who are absent from work after contracting COVID-19.

The Health Department reported a 72-patient rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations Tuesday, bringing the total number of patients with the disease to 1,479. It said nearly 11,600 health-care workers were off the job due to COVID-19.

“Despite everything, the situation for hospitals is under control, even though it’s not easy because there are still many employees who are suffering from COVID,” Boileau said.

Masking is an effective way to reduce COVID-19 transmission, he said, adding that while not everyone likes having to wear a mask, the health order is an “acceptable restriction in the current situation.”

“For us, it’s important to reduce the number of risky contacts, and this is one way to do that,” Boileau said.

The government had planned to lift the mask mandate for indoor public places except transit by April 15. In early March, Boileau suggested it could be lifted even earlier. But on Tuesday, he said the sixth wave of the pandemic has changed the situation.

“It’s spreading very rapidly,” Boileau said. “The number of cases is very high.”

Health officials reported 2,615 new COVID-19 cases confirmed by PCR testing Tuesday, adding that 16.8 per cent of tests analyzed came back positive. PCR testing in the province is currently restricted to certain high-risk groups. The province said an additional 1,586 positive results from take-home rapid tests were uploaded to an online portal.

Quebec and Prince Edward Island are now the only provinces where masks must be worn in all public places.

Boileau said the majority of new infections are associated with small private gatherings, but he said he has no plans to recommend more restrictions because people have enough knowledge about the virus to manage their own risks.

“We have no intention to add measures,” he said. “We’re not there.”

Boileau said he hopes the two-week extension of the mask mandate will be sufficient. “We’re just pushing it back a few days — two weeks — for now and then we’ll see. But the intention is not to keep it forever.”

Modelling suggests the current wave of the disease should peak over the next two weeks, Boileau said, adding that it’s unclear whether it will occur before or after the Easter holiday. He said he believes this wave will be less serious than the fifth wave that the province experienced in January.

Speaking to reporters later in the day, Premier Francois Legault offered no guarantee that the mask mandate would be lifted at the end of the month.

“I’m not a psychic,” he said at the legislature. “What’s being predicted is that in the next two weeks, there will be an increase in cases, in hospitalizations. There may be a possibility that (cases) will go down after, but there are no guarantees, so we will follow the situation week by week.”

Health officials reported 31 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus Tuesday.

Boileau said Quebec will also expand access to fourth doses of COVID-19 vaccines to people 70 and over on Wednesday and to people 60 and over on April 11.

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