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COVID hospitalizations rise in Quebec, minister criticized for overly optimistic tone

MONTREAL — The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations is increasing across Quebec, but the rise is not as rapid as in previous waves and is not being felt in intensive care units, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Wednesday.
People wear face masks as they walk through a subway station in Montreal, Sunday, July 17, 2022, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in the province. The number of hospitalizations linked to COVID-19 in Quebec has risen above 2,000 for the first time since mid-August. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL — The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations is increasing across Quebec, but the rise is not as rapid as in previous waves and is not being felt in intensive care units, Health Minister Christian Dubé said Wednesday.

Health officials reported a rise of 207 COVID-19 patients, for a total of 2,030 — the first time hospitalizations rose above 2,000 since mid-August. They said 595 patients are in hospital because of the disease. 

Hospitalizations are on the rise, Dubé told reporters in Montreal, because there has been a steady increase in infections over the past four weeks, particularly among people 70 and over and among health-care workers. 

"It's not the kind of exponential increase we've seen before and this increase is not being felt in intensive care at the moment, which is also good news, so it's different from the seventh wave that we had in the summer," Dubé said.

But Roxane Borgès Da Silva, a professor at Université de Montréal's school of public health, said Dubé's message is too positive. The situation is worsening in Europe, she said, adding that in France, nearly 95,000 new COVID-19 cases were detected Tuesday and hospitalizations have risen significantly. 

"The context is not so reassuring," she said in an interview Wednesday, adding that the impact of new variants remains unknown and that the arrival of flu season at a time when COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising could put heavy pressure on Quebec's health-care system.

"Their positivism worries me, because it sends too positive a message compared to the uncertainty that we face this fall," she said about Dubé and public health director Dr. Luc Boileau.

Dubé said the best way to protect the health-care system is for people to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster, adding that anyone whose last shot was more than five months ago, or whose last infection was more than three months ago, should get another dose.

Da Silva said she thinks encouraging people to get vaccinated is the right message, but she added that more should be done to promote it. "It's necessary to send a reassuring but strict, serious message that it is absolutely necessary to be vaccinated," she said. 

Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious disease specialist at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, said this year's flu season is expected to come early and be more harsh than usual because of a particularly severe influenza strain in circulation and because people have been less exposed than normal to that virus over the past two years.

Australia just experienced its worse flu season in five years, he said. "The flu season hit them early, it hit hard, it seemed to cause a high, high burden of disease, particularly in children and teenagers."

Quebec has made the flu vaccine available a month ahead of schedule, a decision Oughton said he applauds. But he too said more needs to be done to encourage COVID-19 vaccination. 

The government, he said, shouldn't rule out bringing back mandatory masking in places where there are large public gatherings, if there is a "sudden surge of severe viral infections."

While Dubé said people should think about wearing masks more frequently, he added that the government has no plans to implement any restrictive public health measures. “There is no need at this time for new measures, we just need to wear the mask when it's needed, and I think that's very important, but also the key message today is go get your booster shot as soon as possible," Dubé said.

Officials said 52 people were in intensive care with COVID-19 Wednesday, including 19 people hospitalized because of the disease. The Health Department also reported 14 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including three that occurred within the previous 24 hours.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2022.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press