Quebec moves more regions to highest COVID-19 alert level amid decline in new cases

MONTREAL — The decline in the daily number of new COVID-19 cases reported in Quebec is a sign the government's targeted lockdown approach is working, Premier Francois Legault said Tuesday, but he warned it's too early to celebrate.

Public health officials in Quebec reported 815 new COVID-19 infections on Tuesday, the smallest daily number of new cases since the end of September.

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Legault, however, said he was moving three more regions to the maximum "red" pandemic-alert level. The regions south and northeast of Montreal and the Charlevoix region near Quebec City will be forced to close bars, gyms and other venues and ban indoor and outdoor private gatherings.

Saguenay, where officials are reporting an outbreak of 25 cases at a long-term care home, will move to "orange" alert, which is one level below red, he said. Montreal and Quebec City are already under red alert.

Legault told reporters he expects some restrictions to last for months. "We know that we'll need some measures for many months because we don't expect to have a vaccine by December for everybody," he said.

"We know that we'll still have to wear masks," he said, adding that physical distancing would also have to be maintained.

But beyond that, Legault said it was too early to say what restrictions may be in place on indoor gatherings in the future, adding that the rules will continue to vary in different parts of the province.

Health authorities reported three deaths linked to the novel coronavirus in the previous 24 hours. Two deaths between Oct. 6 and 11 were also attributed to COVID-19, bringing the death toll to 5,970. Hospitalizations rose by 11 to reach 468, with 85 patients in intensive care — an increase of 10.

In Quebec City, the Universite Laval-affiliated hospitals said on Tuesday they will start cancelling surgeries in the coming days due to the high number of COVID-19 patients currently being treated. The teaching hospitals said they expect to cancel or postpone 300 surgeries and 6,000 outpatient appointments a week.

With nearly 88,000 cases since the pandemic began, Quebec is the province most affected by COVID-19, and a group of researchers and medical professionals is calling on the province to be more transparent about its response to the pandemic.

On Sunday, COVID-19 Resources Canada, a project led by McGill genetics professor Guillaume Bourque and Tara Moriarty, a University of Toronto professor who studies infectious disease, launched a petition calling on Quebec to follow the lead of other provinces and publish more data, including a daily breakdown of the number of tests done by region and age group.

"What we see being shared in daily press briefings in Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Ontario is nothing like we get here," said Fatima Tokhmafshan, a geneticist and bioethicist at the McGill University Hospital Centre in Montreal, who helped create the petition.

Quebec public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda dismissed the researchers' concerns as he joined Legault at Tuesday news conference. Arruda directed them to a government website with information on the number of positive tests by region and age group as well as data on the total number of tests conducted provincewide.

Tokhmafshan said more detailed information about the number of tests done by region and age group, as well as information about backlogs in testing and contact tracing, could help researchers estimate how fast the virus is spreading not only at the provincial level but within specific communities.

COVID-19 Resources Canada also wants the Quebec government to share more information about what experts it's consulting, what advice it receives and how it makes decisions related to the virus. Tokhmafshan said in an interview that sharing that information would help build trust among Quebecers and improve compliance with public health directives, as well as help researchers studying the virus.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2020.

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

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