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Seniors wait for their COVID-19 vaccinations on March 1, 2021, in Montreal.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

The Quebec government will offer a fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine to older and vulnerable Quebecers amid a rise in infections driven by the contagious BA.2 subvariant, the province’s interim public health director said Wednesday.

Dr. Luc Boileau told a news conference that the booster will be available beginning next week for Quebecers over the age of 80, for those who live in high-risk settings such as seniors homes and long-term care homes, and for some immunocompromised people.

“We’re not asking people to get vaccinated; we’re offering it,” he said.

COVID-19 cases are rising, Boileau said, adding that about half of them involve the BA.2 subvariant of the Omicron mutation of the novel coronavirus, which he said is 30 to 40 per cent more contagious than previous variants.

Boileau said it will still take days or weeks to know whether Quebec is at the beginning of a sixth wave of COVID-19, but he stressed that the rise in cases is not unexpected. Health officials, he added, don’t predict the huge surge in hospitalizations that accompanied the Omicron wave in December.

“The figures we’re seeing show there’s a risk of a rising of cases, but not a big wave like we had,” he said.

New projections from the province’s health-care institute released Wednesday indicate the number of Quebecers hospitalized with COVID-19 is expected to rise in the coming weeks, after nine consecutive weeks of decline.

The update from the Institut national d’excellence en sante et en services sociaux suggested an “upward trend in the number of new hospitalizations as well as the number of regular beds occupied by COVID-19 patients” in the next two weeks. The number of patients in intensive care is expected to remain relatively stable.

Boileau said that despite the rise in cases, the province doesn’t anticipate reimposing public health restrictions or pushing back its plan to lift mandatory mask mandates in most public places by mid-April. Instead, he said, the government would likely recommend continued masking for some people and in some settings.

He said the situation in the province is “very different” than when the Omicron wave hit in December, when few Quebecers had received a third dose of vaccine. He said the province estimates some three million Quebecers fell ill with the disease in recent months and still have some immunity.

The government’s decision to lift restrictions took the probable rise of BA.2 into account, he added.

People who want a fourth dose of vaccine need to wait at least three months from their previous dose.

Dr. Jean Longtin, a microbiologist who attended the news conference, said there’s currently no evidence that immunity from third doses is waning in Quebec. However, he said health experts are choosing to offer fourth doses to residents of long-term care homes and residential settings as a preventive measure, especially since that population received their third doses five or six months ago.

He said there’s currently “no indication” that adults in their 70s living in the community need a booster, but he said “if data or trends change in the coming weeks, that’s something that can be adapted.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the Quebec government reported two more deaths due to COVID-19 and a slight rise in the number of people in intensive care. The overall number of people hospitalized with the novel coronavirus dropped by nine, to 1,034, after 99 people entered hospital and 108 left. There were 50 people in intensive care, an increase of four.

The number of cases detected by PCR testing rose to 2,111, although that number presents only a partial portrait due to the limited availability of tests.

There were 3,496 vaccine doses administered in the province on Tuesday.

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