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Quebec Premier Francois Legault speaks during a news conference at the legislature, in Quebec City, on March 30, 2021.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec Premier Francois Legault said Tuesday he’s concerned about a rise in the number of active COVID-19 cases in five parts of the province where restrictions were recently loosened.

The government is sending a larger proportion of its vaccine supply to those five regions, Legault said, adding that he’ll increase restrictions if residents don’t follow health orders.

“The problem we see is that people in five regions right now don’t follow the rules that are in place, especially for visits in homes,” he told reporters in Quebec City. “If needed, we’ll put additional measures because right now we see a very fast increase in those five regions.”

The five parts of the province under heightened surveillance are Quebec City; Outaouais, particularly the city of Gatineau, across the river from Ottawa; Bas-St-Laurent; Chaudiere-Appalaches; and the Saguenay – Lac-St-Jean region.

All five are under the “orange” pandemic alert level – the province’s second highest. Several of them were moved to the orange level earlier this month.

Which COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’ are in Canada? Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Lambda explained

COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.

Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.

ALPHA (B.1.1.7)

  • Country of origin: Britain
  • Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
  • Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.

BETA (B.1.351)

  • Country of origin: South Africa
  • Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
  • Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.

GAMMA (P.1)

  • Country of origin: Brazil
  • Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
  • Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.

DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)

  • Country of origin: India
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
  • Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.

LAMBDA (C.37)

  • Country of origin: Peru
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
  • Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.

If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?

Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.

Need more answers? Email audience@globeandmail.com

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

COVID-19 news: Updates and essential resources about the pandemic

Is my area going back into COVID-19 lockdown? A guide to restrictions across Canada

Quebec has reported an average of 876 new cases each day over the past week, up from 709 the week before. If trends continue, Legault said he could reimpose an 8 p.m. curfew in those five regions.

Montreal, Legault said, once the epicentre of the pandemic in Canada, is stable.

There are roughly 94.5 active cases per 100,000 people in Quebec, but in some parts of Bas-St-Laurent, on the lower shore of the St. Lawrence River, there are 400 active cases per 100,000 people. In one part of Saguenay, there are 368 active cases per 100,000 people, while in the Beauce region of Chaudiere-Appalaches, there are 199 active cases per 100,000 people.

Legault said he’s most concerned about the situation in Outaouais, where there is a shortage of hospital capacity. He said Quebec is working with Ontario to try and harmonize the restrictions on both sides of the Ottawa River.

With the rise in cases, Legault said he expects a rise in hospitalizations. “We should see an increase in hospitalizations in the coming weeks,” he said. “At the moment, we expect it won’t exceed our capacity, but that can change very quickly.”

Quebec’s public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, responded to criticism from the professional body representing Quebec physicians, about his advice to ease restrictions. On Monday, high school students in the province’s red zones, including Montreal, returned to in-person classes full time.

Arruda told reporters he accepts that there is a certain level of risk that comes with the return to in-person learning but that public health has to consider other factors. “There are kids that are going to fail their year, there are kids with mental health issues,” Arruda said. “Public health is not only infectious disease, it’s also (about) those impacts (and) violence toward women.”

Following a recommendation Monday from federal experts to suspend use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in people under 55, Legault said he believes the vaccine is safe for people over 55. “The greater risk is to refuse to be vaccinated,” he said.

Earlier on Tuesday, Quebec’s public health institute said it confirmed 429 more COVID-19 cases that involve variants of concern. The institute said there were 1,134 confirmed cases in the province of more contagious mutations. It said it also detected 468 more suspected cases of variants, bringing the total of suspected cases to 6,948.

Health authorities reported 864 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday and seven more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including one within the previous 24 hours. Officials said the number of hospitalizations rose by 10, to 487, and 126 people were in intensive care, a rise of six.

Quebec has reported a total of 310,066 COVID-19 infections and 10,658 deaths linked to the virus.

Dr. Theresa Tam says COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to smother the pandemic in Canada but she urges slow and cautious removal of public health restrictions so they can be of maximum benefit. Reopening too soon, especially as more contagious variants spread, will likely just mean slamming things shut again after people get sick.

The Canadian Press

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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