Quebec public health officials are set to outline the province’s coronavirus screening strategy on Friday, as Quebec moves towards a gradual de-confinement.
Retail stores are set to reopen as early as May 4 in the regions and May 11 in the Greater Montreal area. Classes are set to resume for primary schools and daycares on May 11 outside of the Montreal area, with the city following suit a week later.
As of Friday there are 28, 648 confirmed cases of COVID‑19, the disease caused by the virus, including 2,022 deaths.
As Quebec leads the country with the most cases of the illness and the highest number of fatalities, the government has been facing backlash from Quebecers worried the province is moving too fast.
Over the past week, Quebec Premier François Legault has maintained that the health crisis is unfolding in seniors residences but that the situation is mostly under control in the rest of society.
Legault has also insisted that despite the rising number of deaths, the health-care system is able to handle cases as the province prepares to gradually reopen the economy and schools.
In Montreal, however, several hospitals are currently dealing with outbreaks of COVID-19, and at least two, including Maisonneuve-Rosemont and Santa Cabrini, have had to delay surgeries. As a result of the outbreaks, some hospitals are currently running above capacity.
Legault admitted the virus’s progression in the northern and eastern parts of the island, particularly in Montreal North, is worrying and that public health authorities are closely monitoring the situation.
The premier said he could also delay his plan if public health authorities determine the city’s hospitals cannot cope with a possible increase in cases linked to de-confinement.
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Earlier this week, Montreal-area opposition MNAs called for more extensive testing for the novel coronavirus.
“We need to isolate the people who need to be isolated and we can only do that if we know what’s going on,” said MNA Paule Robitaille.
Legault said opening up the province will come with increased testing. Public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda confirmed the plan on Friday.
“We are going to be setting up a more massive screening plan in the community, in very affected regions in particular,” he said. “In Montreal North, we plan to do 14,000 tests from today to the end of next week.”
Arruda warned an increase in testing would lead to an increase in the number of positive cases.
“But that’s what we want,” he said, because “the less you test, the less cases you find and the more people are circulating in the population who aren’t necessarily diagnosed.”
As of Friday, 220,000 tests had been administered to detect positive cases. Arruda said the aim is to the then identify contacts and trace back transmission all in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.
The three-pronged approach of researching, investigating and containing continues to guide the government’s screening strategy.
While efforts in the last weeks have been focused on providing testing in health-care facilities such as long-term care homes and hospitals, hotspots for outbreaks, testing will now be expanded to include the general population exhibiting symptoms.
“We will focus on the areas that we are opening, like schools, daycares, manufacturing plants and construction,” Arruda said, adding that testing would continue for health-care workers, residents in care homes, first responders and other essential workers.”
Arruda said the province will ramp up testing to about 100,000 tests a week, starting on Monday.
A new study released Friday by the University of Montreal suggests, however, that the government’s strategy could be improved by including randomized testing in the general population.
“Only about two per cent of the population has been tested and it turns out that with this particular virus there is a very wide-ranging spectrum in terms of symptoms,” said Professor Joshua Lewis, an economist at the university and co-author of the study.
“So many people may have mild symptoms or even no symptoms and so they may never show up to testing clinics to see whether or not they have the disease.”
Lewis argued that the prevalence of the disease in the population is greater than the 28,648 confirmed cases. Arruda agreed, saying about 3 per cent of Quebec’s population of 8 million likely have COVID-19.
Lewis argues that random testing would help Quebec stay ahead of the outbreaks.
“We need to keep a careful watch on cases at as fine as a geographic level as possible, so doing this randomized population testing is useful for making sure we don’t have another outbreak that gets out of control,” he said.
— With files from Global’s Kalina Laframboise and the Canadian Press