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A person walks by a COVID-19 vaccination sign in Montreal on Aug. 8.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

New COVID-19 cases are rising in Quebec, but unlike during previous waves of the novel coronavirus, the level of vaccination in the province should lead to significantly fewer hospitalizations, experts said Friday.

Dr. Donald Sheppard, director of the interdisciplinary initiative in infection and immunity at McGill University, says he’s optimistic Quebec will avoid another lockdown this fall.

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“Will hospitalizations go up? Of course they will,” he said in an interview. “There’s more cases. Even with the vaccine, that means some people will break through and get sick and get in the hospital. No vaccine is perfect.”

But Sheppard said that based on his analysis of vaccination by age, it’s likely Quebec will see about 20 to 25 per cent of the hospitalizations it had during the second wave of the pandemic that began in fall 2020 – when no one was vaccinated.

Those figures reflect what’s been seen in the United Kingdom, he said. Sheppard, however, said there are still fears that the immunity granted by the vaccines may decline, which he said could explain why Israel, which was an early leader in vaccination, is now seeing a rise in cases.

“Those lockdowns were being driven by deaths and by concerns about overburdening the health-care system, and forcing the health-care system to choose between delivering care for other conditions like cancer, or pulmonary diseases and the like, versus caring for the massive amount of COVID patients in the hospital,” he said about Quebec’s management of the pandemic.

“If we’re able to deliver our core services in the health-care system and deal with a smaller number of COVID patients, it’s a much harder argument to make that we should be locking down.”

Quebec reported 527 COVID-19 infections on Friday, the highest number of new daily cases reported in the province since May. That’s not a surprise, Sheppard said, as there are still many opportunities for the virus to spread in the province.

About 77 per cent of Quebecers 12 and over are considered adequately vaccinated, according to government data. But Sheppard said thousands of those people received their second dose less than two weeks ago, giving them a lower level of protection. Children under 12, meanwhile, are not vaccinated.

“There’s a lot of cracks for the virus to exploit in spreading among people that are not fully immune,” he said, adding that a small percentage of people who are fully vaccinated can also contract COVID-19.

What worries him is the return to school – and the fact the Quebec government may not require elementary and high school students to wear masks.

On Thursday, a Quebec government health-care research institute said it expects the number of hospitalizations linked to COVID-19 to rise over the next three weeks, particularly in the Montreal area. But the Institut national d’excellence en sante et services sociaux said it did not expect hospitalizations to exceed dedicated capacity over that time period.

“We don’t expect to see things go beyond the currently designated resources here in Quebec for health services,” said David Buckeridge, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at McGill University and one of the developers of the mathematical model used for the forecasts.

But he warned that the pandemic isn’t over. “Despite the really impressive job we’ve done with vaccination, it’s not back to normal,” he said.

Adapting the model to rising vaccination rates and the Delta variant is an ongoing process, he said, adding that some events, like the upcoming return to school, aren’t factored into the model.

The Health Department on Friday reported two more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus and said hospitalizations dropped by four from Thursday, to 87, and 30 people were in intensive care, a rise of three.

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

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