Quebec is urging people to be prudent amid rising COVID-19 cases as the province says it is possibly gearing up for a sixth wave of the pandemic driven by the even more transmissible BA.2 Omicron subvariant.
Interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau held a rare Sunday press conference issuing a warning to Quebecers, saying several indicators of another wave are on the rise as experts closely monitor an upsurge in spread, but that “it is still too soon to say that a sixth wave is officially here.”
He said along with an uptick in cases and positivity rates of PCR tests limited to certain high-priority groups, health authorities have also noted a spike in hospitalizations in several regions outside of the Montreal area.
Boileau said the province has no plan on announcing any restrictions or closures, but added that it’s important that people act responsibly by testing and isolating.
He reminded Quebecers that while the isolation guideline for vaccinated individuals remains five days as of the onset of symptoms and then masking for another five days, people can still be contagious for up to ten days.
In addition to the rise in infections, Boileau said in less than a week about 8,600 health network workers are currently off the job due to the virus. By comparison during the Omicron wave in December and January, between 16,000 and 20,000 health workers were absent.
Those who are more vulnerable and at risk of developing infection-related complications due to age or because they’re immunosuppressed should be all that more cautious, the public health director said.
Health authorities say they expected cases to rise as public health restrictions lifted in the province in recent weeks, but the presence of the even more contagious BA.2 subvariant is driving a surge in cases and currently accounts for two-thirds of positive cases in Quebec.
The latest daily provincial testing data released Friday reported 2,203 PCR tests came back positive in the previous 24 hours — an underrepresentation of the situation as access to PCR testing remains limited to high priority groups.
Non-priority groups should be testing with at-home antigen tests that are available at local pharmacies.
As for hospitalizations, Quebec reported 1,088 hospitalizations on Sunday, with 56 people listed in intensive care.
Boileau told reporters on Sunday it will take several more days of data to be certain that Quebec is officially in its sixth wave.
Early data on the BA.2 subvariant of the original BA.1 Omicron variant shows that it isn’t more dangerous, but is more transmissible than the BA.1 Omicron — which had already become the most contagious COVID variant since the start of the pandemic.
The BA.2 sub-lineage of Omicron was first detected in November last year. Virologists say BA.2 will likely push out BA.1 as the dominant strain, just as Omicron overtook Delta. Research so far suggests that the severity of the BA.2 disease is similar to BA.1’s.
Earlier this week health authorities in the province approved a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose for at-risk groups.
Quebec has promised that mask requirements, the only remaining measure, will be lifted by April 15 for public spaces and by May for public transportation and Boileau said that remains the plan.
At least three senior Quebec government members tested positive in the last week, including Premier Francois Legault.
–with files from The Canadian Press and Reuters