A more contagious mutation of the novel coronavirus could be the dominant strain circulating in Montreal by March or April — but the spread of variants depends on how strictly people abide by public health measures and on how many cases are imported, according to Quebec’s public health institute.
The latest COVID-19 modelling was issued by the Institut de Santé Publique du Québec (INSPQ) on Wednesday, one day after the province loosened some restrictions ahead of the upcoming school break.
The modelling is based on a variant that is between 1.2 and 1.8 times more contagious than the current strain, which roughly corresponded to the B.1.1.7 variant which was first detected in the United Kingdom.
“More contacts can give oxygen to this variant,” said Marc Brisson of Université Laval during the presentation.
Quebec has seen a downward trend in cases, deaths and hospitalizations after stricter rules came into effect in January, but officials have expressed concern that the presence of variants could reverse that progress.
Health Minister Christian Dubé said Tuesday that variants will have a major impact on how and when restrictions are eased as the pandemic continues.
So far, INSPQ has found 16 confirmed cases of variants in Quebec, including 13 cases of the mutation first found in the U.K. As of Wednesday, the institute says there are also 135 suspected infections of variants in the province.
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Brisson explained that the government’s choice to ease some restrictions on Feb. 8 — which includes reopening non-essential businesses across the province — could prompt a sharp rise in the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths if a variant takes hold.
Schools are likely to be the first place where a mutation will spread because of the high level of contact in school buildings, he added.
But researchers also stressed that the best way to stop the spread of potential variants right now is to abide by public health orders, maintain physical distancing and limit contact with others.
“The key right now, and the important message, is to have a good adhesion to the measures in place,” Brisson said.
This also includes limiting travel to other parts of the province.
“Of course there is already a spread of a certain amount of these variants. We’ve announced a case in Laval, we’ve announced the many cases in Montreal and the cases in Abitibi,” said Jocelyne Sauvé, the institute’s vice-president of affairs.
“This is why the government is going on to say it’s better to stay in your region.”
Quebecers are also being asked to get tested if they feel unwell and respect isolation rules if they have contracted COVID-19.
— With files from the Canadian Press