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People wear masks as they walk past closed storefronts downtown, March 18, 2021, in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Quebec imposed its strictest lockdown in nearly a year on two regions in the province as COVID-19 variants suddenly spin out of control, while Ontario was expected to announce new province-wide restrictions to temper the third wave of the pandemic.

The Quebec City region and Gatineau will close schools, restaurants, non-essential stores and services and other public venues Thursday. The province tightened a curfew to force people home by 8 p.m. and restricted religious gatherings to 25 people, down from 250, in the areas.

Less than 24 hours earlier, government officials including Public Health Director Horacio Arruda said there was no need to panic and that the province could absorb many more cases. Premier François Legault said earlier this week that Quebec had the third wave under control.

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

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

Canada’s COVID-19 quarantine hotels are now mandatory for international air travellers. Here’s what you need to know

Even as the rollout of vaccines gains momentum, premiers across the country are imposing or considering new measures. British Columbia recorded more than 1,000 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, a single-day record in the province. Earlier this week, it closed indoor restaurant dining and the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet met Wednesday to discuss the possibility of a new provincewide lockdown or other changes to Ontario’s colour-coded levels of pandemic rules. Ontario had recently loosened limits for its grey zones and other regions, allowing some businesses to open. Hospitals in the province reported 421 patients in their intensive-care units – the highest number since the pandemic began – and infections continue to climb.

As of Wednesday evening, the government was expected to announce on Thursday what it will call a “shutdown” for the entire province beginning Saturday, which includes moving restaurants to takeout and delivery only, closing indoor fitness and limiting capacity in stores, according to three sources.

The restrictions are similar to those currently in place in Toronto and Peel, although patios had recently been allowed to open. The sources were granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about internal deliberations. Schools are still expected to break for a week in April and resume in-person classes.

In a few days, new cases in Quebec City doubled to 193, while a sudden rise in Gatineau tested hospital capacity. Both cities had restrictions lifted just three weeks ago because things were going well. In the province, the B.1.1.7 variant has nearly overtaken the original strain. Most restrictions remained in place in Montreal, where new cases have stayed relatively stable.

Students in the locked-down regions will participate in online learning next week.

“The situation is critical and deteriorating” in the two areas, Mr. Legault said. “People have to stay home unless absolutely necessary. With the variants, we can see an explosion of cases within a few days.”

Trouble in Quebec City took off this week after an outbreak at a gym owned by one of the province’s most vocal opponents of lockdown measures. By Wednesday, Méga Fitness Gym was the source of 68 cases and outbreaks in eight other businesses. The owner, Daniel Marino, could not be reached amid reports he was among the sick.

“Bravo champion. Everyone has nice biceps but now people are sick,” said Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume.

“We have completely lost control,” Mr. Labeaume said of his city. “We’ve gone from a situation that was worrisome to one that is very dangerous.”

In Ontario, Mr. Ford urged residents to avoid gatherings over the Easter weekend and to follow public-health guidelines.

“I’m very, very concerned to see the cases go up. I’m very concerned to see the ICU capacity,” Mr. Ford said. “And we all have to be vigilant.”

The province is also releasing new modelling Thursday expected to paint a dire picture about the rise in more contagious and deadlier variants, which now make up 67 per cent of Ontario’s infections. The province’s overall situation is more serious than Quebec’s, where hospital admissions and intensive-care cases remain stable.

Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-diseases physician in Toronto who sits on Ontario’s vaccination task force, said he supports more restrictions but that outdoor activities should be encouraged as much as possible.

“I’m not a fan of lockdowns, I think they cause harm, they are obviously detrimental to mental health and economic health,” he said, adding that with the health system on the brink of being overwhelmed, the government has few other options. “It stinks but sadly it works.”

He also said there needs to be sufficient screening, safety measures and paid sick leave for those in high-risk occupations.

“Reopening occurred too quickly. The vaccine rollout was never going to be fast enough to prevent a third wave, and here we are,” Dr. Bogoch said.

Ontario’s opposition party leaders called for an immediate “circuit-breaker” lockdown and accused the government of taking too long to intervene, echoing their criticisms of Mr. Ford last year when he put off lockdown measures until after Christmas.

“We’ve seen this really horrible movie before. We saw it before Christmas. We’ve seen repeated dithering, we’ve seen repeated delays,” Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca said.

Meanwhile, Toronto has asked the province to lower the vaccine eligibility age to 60 at city-run clinics, after it has had problems getting enough takers for all available time slots. Officials said there were still 12,000 vaccination appointments available for the coming days, spots currently only open to those 70 and older.

Mayor John Tory said he talked to Mr. Ford twice on Wednesday about the issue and that the Premier supports the move. Mr. Tory also pleaded with residents not to gather this weekend with anyone other than people in their own household, warning that irresponsible behaviour in the next few days could mean restrictions that last the entire summer.

“Better days are ahead. We can get our lives back if we don’t screw this up,” Mr. Tory said.

With reports from Jeff Gray and Oliver Moore

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