Quebec leads Canada in coronavirus deaths, so why is it starting to reopen?
TORONTO -- When surveying the COVID-19 landscape in Canada, one province stands out.
Quebec has nearly twice as many confirmed cases of the disease as any other province, and more than 1,000 more related deaths than Ontario, the only other province with a total anywhere close.
When the numbers are adjusted for population, Quebec stands out even more. One out of every 250 Quebecers has tested positive for COVID-19. In Alberta, which has done more testing per capita, that figure stands at approximately one out of every 750 residents. In Ontario, it's one out of every 800. No other province comes close. The rates in every other province are even lower.
Sixty per cent of all Canadian deaths linked to COVID-19 have occurred in Quebec, including more than one-third in Montreal alone. The city is steadily racking up more positive tests and COVID-19-related deaths than the rest of Quebec, per capita. Montreal's director of public health, Mylene Drouin, said this week that the city is "not seeing a decrease" in its coronavirus curve.
"Montreal's left a little bit like a child at a birthday party who [is] kept inside watching all the fun happen elsewhere," Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist based at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, told CTV News Channel on Monday.
"It's a difficult situation, because clearly what's going on in Montreal is very different than what's happening in much the rest of the province."
WHAT'S HAPPENING IN QUEBEC?
Unlike most other parts of the country, where new COVID-19 caseloads are generally decreasing, Quebec's daily numbers have been holding steady since mid-April, according to Jay Kaufman, an epidemiology professor at McGill.
"We haven't really gotten much better or much worse, which probably isn't good news," Kaufman told CTV's Your Morning on Thursday.
But it isn't just numbers that make the novel coronavirus pandemic seem different in Quebec than anywhere else in Canada. The province has attracted criticism for moving to reopen schools before businesses. Law enforcement officers in Quebec have issued twice as many tickets or charges for alleged COVID-19-related infractions as in the rest of Canada combined. Somebody is attempting to burn down Quebec's cell towers, perhaps because of a false belief about a connection between 5G technology and COVID-19.
Staff shortages are a major issue as well. Premier Francois Legault said Tuesday that 11,200 workers are absent from the health-care and long-term-care sectors because of positive tests, risk of COVID-19 infection or fear of contracting the disease.
Quebec is one of the provinces where long-term care homes have been the largest driver of COVID-19 related deaths. Approximately 80 per cent of deaths in Quebec are believed to be linked to these facilities, either directly through resident deaths or indirectly via workers spreading the diseases in their home neighbourhoods.
"The centre of this epidemic is really in those institutional settings," Kaufman said.
"When we think about opening up other aspects of society, we have to do so in a safe way to protect those more vulnerable sectors of society."
And while the Quebec government is moving to reopen some closed parts of society, there are signs that many Quebecers aren't quite ready to go along with that. Retail, construction and manufacturing businesses started reopening this week in all parts of the province except Montreal.
Elementary schools and daycares will follow next week, although attendance is not considered mandatory. Many parents have said they will not send their children – 35 of 170 students at one school in Howick, Que. are expected to return to class – and it is also expected that some teachers will refuse to report for duty. Class sizes will be limited to 15 students, or fewer in rooms that are too small to hold that many while abiding by physical distancing requirements.
"We're quite upset that they've decided to move ahead with this, considering Quebec has more than 50 per cent of the cases in Canada," Heidi Yetman, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, said Thursday in an interview with CTV News Channel.
Teachers' and parents' fears could be compounded by news of the province's first outbreak in a daycare. Twelve out of 26 children at the facility in Mascouche, Que. have tested positive for COVID-19, as have four staff members. The daycare was left open during the pandemic for children of essential workers.
Kaufman, though, suggests there may be some sense in reopening schools, saying normal activity needs to resume at some point and children seem to be "relatively low-risk" compared to older age groups.
"We can't hold our breath forever. We have to find the safest places, and allow those places to open up," he said.
Planned school and business reopenings in Montreal have been delayed until May 25, due to lack of progress repelling the virus in the city. Legault noted Monday that Montreal has "a very small margin for error" and that he would like to see lower case and hospitalization numbers before reopenings move ahead.
The city has taking some new actions aimed at making that happen, including converting a city bus into a mobile testing centre. In the borough of Montreal North, which is the hardest-hit part of the city, testing is being ramped up and masks are being distributed to the population.
"Testing is definitely the way out of this problem," Kaufman said.
"That's how every other country has gotten out of this mess, and that's what we need to be ready to do as well."