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Quebec Premier Francois Legault and Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube, right, walk to a news conference at the legislature, in Quebec City, on March 9, 2021.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec paid homage Thursday to the thousands of people who lost their lives to COVID-19 in the province hardest hit by the pandemic, many of whom died alone and in miserable conditions.

In the capital, Premier Francois Legault gathered with bereaved families, front-line health-care workers and political leaders to the mark the one-year anniversary since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic.

One by one, they laid a white rose before a large wreath outside the legislature to the music of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Maestro Kent Nagano, playing remotely from Montreal.

Quebec has reported 10,518 deaths linked to the pandemic – the most in Canada – and 295,390 COVID-19 infections. Close to half the deaths were among people in long-term care homes -- many of which were understaffed at the start of the crisis and incapable of providing proper care.

In brief remarks, Legault recognized what he called the heroic efforts of health-care staff and essential workers over the past year.

“The virus hit hard and above all, hit our elderly, who built the Quebec of today,” Legault said. “We lost grandmothers, grandfathers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, friends and today, Quebec remembers all these people who left us too soon.”

Quebec City resident Lucie Garneau lost her father, Lucien, on Dec. 24 at age 98. He died suddenly of COVID-19, without the presence of his family, only medical staff. Garneau said some will say her father was old, but she said he was in good health and his death came as a shock.

She was unable to see her father and give him a hug in the days before his death at a makeshift COVID-19 ward at Hotel Le Concorde. But Garneau lauded the work of a doctor who let her see her father using FaceTime.

“He said to me: ‘You know, I’m going to come back as before, don’t worry,”’ she recounted her father saying.

Garneau said she would take part in the ceremony at the legislature. “For me, it’s very meaningful to be there,” she said before the event, adding it will allow her to heal. “It will help me to mourn and bring me comfort because I know that there will be people present who have experienced a situation similar to mine.”

In Montreal, Mayor Valerie Plante expressed her sympathy with those who died alone, without their family and friends.

“Is there a greater sacrifice than leaving our loved ones without a chance to say a final goodbye? I don’t think so,” she told a ceremony outside city hall.

No city in Quebec has been more affected by the pandemic than Montreal, which reported more than 4,558 deaths linked to the virus. Plante said the city will be changed forever.

“Our beloved city, our vibrant city, has become a ghost town,” she said. “Our restaurants have been closed, our artists have been forced to retreat back, our businesses have faced days of darkness, our office towers have emptied, our downtown has stopped buzzing with activity and our most vulnerable have become so many.”

Back in Quebec City, Legault spent a few moments with some of the families after the ceremony. In front of the media, Marie-Andree Chamard, who lost her mother last spring, said she was unable to see the 93-year-old one last time at the city’s Jeffery Hale hospital. She said her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s before catching COVID-19.

“She didn’t have to die of it,” Chamard said, adding that her mother had five children. Only one of them, however, was allowed to be at her bedside at the time of death, because of the health orders.

Earlier on Thursday, Quebec reported 738 new COVID-19 infections and 15 more deaths linked to the novel coronavirus. Health officials said hospitalizations dropped by 18, to 563, and 111 people were in intensive care, a drop of one. There are 7,134 active reported cases in the province.

Quebec confirmed six additional cases of COVID-19 variants, for a total of 341: five cases of the B.1.1.7 variant first detected in the United Kingdom and one of the B.1.351 mutation first identified in South Africa.

Quebec also administered 18,659 vaccine doses Wednesday, for a total of 619,060 – about 7.3 per cent of the population.

With files from Caroline Plante in Quebec City and Jacob Serebrin in Montreal

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