Coronavirus: looking back on how Quebec responded to COVID-19 in 2020

On the day Quebecers are preparing to bid farewell to a year many would rather forget, 8,226 Quebecers have perished from COVID-19.
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Coronavirus: looking back on how Quebec responded to COVID-19 in 2020
WATCH: Global News' Benson Cook takes a look at how the novel coronavirus unfolded in Quebec throughout the past year, as Quebecers prepare to bid farewell to a historic year that left lots of people across the province dealing with loss and isolation – Dec 31, 2020

On Feb. 27, a woman returning to Montreal from Iran became Quebec’s first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus. Quebecers had been hearing for weeks about the mysterious new illness infecting thousands, first in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and then in northern Italy and Iran.

But when it first arrived on our shores, health officials urged calm.

“The system has worked very well,” then-health minister Danielle McCann said of the health-care network’s ability to quickly identify and isolate the case.

But one case soon grew to dozens, then hundreds, then thousands. Over the course of the 10 months that would follow, the system that worked so well on Feb. 27 was put to a test it had never before encountered.

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A few weeks after Quebec’s index case arrived in the province, on March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic.

At the time, though, things still hadn’t quite taken off in Quebec: the province reported just one newly confirmed case that day, adding to its tiny total to that point of nine.

The day before, the Legault government handed down its budget for the year. Finance Minister Eric Girard estimated in a news conference held afterward that the COVID-19 outbreak would cause the global economy to contract by half a percentage point over the course of the year. Nine months later, TD Economics estimated it actually contracted by 4.1 percentage points.

If COVID-19 didn’t have Quebec’s full attention yet on March 10 and 11, it would soon: the World Figure Skating Championships, set to be held in Montreal, were cancelled. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went into self-isolation after his wife tested positive for the virus.

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By March 23, the situation in Quebec had changed dramatically: 409 new cases were reported that day, a surge suspected to have been fuelled by families travelling abroad during March break several weeks prior.

That day, Premier François Legault made an announcement that would have been unthinkable just a few weeks prior: a full-scale shutdown of all non-essential businesses.

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“Those who can close now, please, do it,” he asked of shops, restaurants and salons.

The lockdown was initially only scheduled to last until April 13. That day, the province reported 711 new cases as the lockdown continued on. By then, attention had begun to turn to the province’s beleaguered network of long-term care homes (CHSLDs), especially Dorval’s Herron Residence.

The West Island CIUSSS president, Lynne McVey, said at the time that Herron was “struggling to keep their ratios of staff to residents.”

Retired nurse Loredana Mule, part of a team dispatched by the CIUSSS to investigate living conditions there, recounted the harrowing experience to Global’s Dan Spector at the time.

“We went from room to room, and every room, Dan, the stench of urine and feces could’ve killed a horse,” Mule said.

More than 4,000 deaths later, the first wave finally began to subside near the end of May, when non-essential retail stores were finally permitted to reopen in Greater Montreal.

The rest of the economy had followed suit by the start of July, and cases stayed fairly low for much of the summer.

Masks became mandatory across the province on July 18. While the vast majority of the population has acquiesced to the rule, a small but incredibly vocal minority still hasn’t, months on.

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As schools began to welcome students back, the province began to once again post triple-digit case numbers each day. On Aug. 31, the premier lamented what he referred to in French as a “relâchement général,” pleading with Quebecers to be more disciplined in following public health measures.

“We don’t want to go back to confinement,” the premier warned at the time.

A month later, on Oct. 1, Quebec reported 933 new cases, and back to confinement we went. This second lockdown at first impacted only the province’s two major cities and their outlying suburbs, and closed only discretionary and leisure activities like bars and restaurants.

Finally, though, close to the end of the pandemic year, Quebecers saw a glimmer of hope as vaccines against the virus, first from Pfizer-BioNTech and then from Moderna, began to arrive. Just like our first cases of COVID-19, these first vaccines against them arrived not as a beachhead but rather a trickle.

Still, the excitement was palpable as residents of CHSLDs in Montreal and Quebec City received their first jabs on Dec. 14.

“Usually I’m very calm and you can see today, I’m quite excited,” Health Minister Christian Dubé, who replaced McCann in the role earlier in the year, told reporters from the steps of the Donald Berman Maimonidies long-term care centre in Côte Saint-Luc at the time. “This is great news for Quebec.”

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But it marked the beginning of what is nearly certain to be a long and painful end to the pandemic: the day the first vaccines in Quebec were administered, 1,620 new cases were reported.

Several weeks later, stubbornly high new case counts forced the province to once again shut down non-essential retail stores until at least Jan. 11, 2021, a sign the crisis will not simply fade away once the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve.

On the day Quebecers are preparing to bid farewell to a year many would rather forget, 8,226 Quebecers have perished from COVID-19.

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