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People lineup outside a COVID-19 testing facility, in Montreal, on Dec. 12.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

With COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations on the rise across Quebec, the provincial government on Tuesday recommended employers prioritize remote work and pledged to issue free rapid tests to the public next week.

The recommendation for remote work is effective immediately, Health Minister Christian Dubé told reporters. He said the government was also looking to find volunteers to help it ramp up its booster-dose vaccination program, but in the meantime, he added, Quebeckers need to reduce their contacts.

“With the rising cases and the potential of Omicron, we want to accelerate booster vaccinations,” Mr. Dubé said about the new variant of the novel coronavirus, of which only 11 cases have so far been confirmed in the province. “But we need more vaccinators. We’re asking employers as of today to favour [remote work] until further notice to minimize contacts at work.”

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Later on Tuesday, the government announced it had suspended its return-to-work order for public servants that had been implemented in mid-November. Full-time remote work would apply “for relevant public service personnel until recommended otherwise.”

Health officials reported 1,747 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday and seven more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. COVID-19-related hospitalizations jumped by 25 patients compared with the prior day, to 293, after 47 people entered hospital and 22 were discharged. The number of intensive care patients rose by two, to 75. There were 14,617 active reported cases in the province.

Mr. Dubé said experts believe the 11 Omicron cases identified in Quebec might be an underestimation. “The experts agree the Omicron variant is much more transmissible than the Delta [variant] – it travels faster and it hits more often,” Mr. Dubé said. “Our experts evaluate that it might be two to three times more contagious, but there isn’t a certitude yet on its severity.”

The province’s public-health director, Horacio Arruda, said all positive cases in the province on Tuesday would be screened for the Omicron variant in order to detect its level of community transmission. A similar exercise on Nov. 30 of 894 positive cases turned up zero Omicron cases, Dr. Arruda added.

Mr. Dubé said that in the past 30 days, the province has identified about 30,000 new COVID-19 cases and more than half involved people who were unvaccinated – despite only representing about 10 per cent of the population.

“I know that unvaccinated people can change their mind and if they look at the chance they have today, given that for the next three months we’re going to be inside, there will be parties and on top of that, the Omicron is coming,” Mr. Dubé said. “If they have a chance, they should go get vaccinated.”

Mr. Dubé said that despite the high level of community transmission in Quebec, the government would maintain its decision to ease restrictions and permit up to 20 people to gather indoors starting Dec. 23, up from a limit of 10 people.

“We are not afraid to change our minds if we think we are not going in the right direction,” Mr. Dubé said. “You have to stay ahead of the game.”

Dr. Arruda appealed to the common sense of Quebeckers. In his own case, he said he reduced the size of his holiday gathering to seven people from 15. “You have to manage your own risk,” Dr. Arruda said. “I’m appealing to the intelligence of Quebeckers and if they have concerns and they’re worried, they should reduce their contacts.”

Mr. Dubé said beginning next Monday, the province would distribute free rapid tests in 1,900 pharmacies – enough to offer a maximum of five tests a person every month. Availability will depend on federal government supply. The tests are for people with COVID-19 symptoms, and a positive result will need to be validated with a PCR test.

Quebec authorities are also seeking 500 volunteers to help the province ramp up its booster-dose vaccination program. The government’s focus is on boosters for those 70 and older and for health care workers. Appointments for those 60 and older will open in early January.

Daniel Paré, the head of Quebec’s vaccination campaign, told reporters the province wanted to double by January the 300,000 vaccinations it can currently administer every week.

There were just more than 34,000 doses administered on Monday, including 9,459 first doses for five to 11 years old and 14,000 third doses for those 70 and older. About 88 per cent of Quebeckers aged five and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 81 per cent have received at least two doses. About 5 per cent of that age group has received a booster dose.

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