Quebecers are being urged to mask up in public spaces as respiratory viruses gain steam and emergency rooms are overcrowded, but the province stopped short of issuing a mask mandate Wednesday.
Health Minister Christian Dubé spoke about the situation during a news conference in Quebec City. Public health is still concerned about COVID-19, but also about the spread of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
“We don’t want a perfect storm,” Dubé said. “And that’s why we’re asking Quebecers to take action and to protect themselves as much as possible to limit the combined affect of those three viruses.”
Dubé recommends wearing a mask in crowded, public places — but not in daycares or schools. The province’s top doctor said the measure will help curb the spread of respiratory viruses as flu season officially begins.
“When we go to public places, especially when it’s crowded, we can come across people who are sick but also people who are vulnerable,” said Dr. Luc Boileau, director of the province’s public health department.
Quebec is facing a “spicy cocktail” of respiratory viruses, he said, adding that RSV accounts for a significant percentage of pediatric hospitalizations in the province, as more children who weren’t exposed in the last couple of years are getting sick.
Boileau said the start of flu season is lagging behind other places, such as Ontario, but cases will almost certainly rise.
The recommendation comes as Boileau already told people earlier this month to stay home if they feel sick, even if they haven’t contracted COVID-19. He also asked anyone who has symptoms to wear a mask when they leave the house.
The government and public health department are keeping a close eye on the spike in respiratory illnesses as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, according to Dubé. The best way to prevent serious illness is to follow the guidelines, he added.
“We have to be very careful in the next few weeks and to go get vaccinated,” he said.
Earlier this week, Quebec’s college of physicians also urged people to wear masks, citing overburdened pediatric hospitals. The order said it should be done on a “voluntary and preventive basis” in public places, crowded private spaces and on public transit.
On Tuesday, Premier François Legault said it was “out of the question” in the short term for the government to impose a new mask mandate for public spaces. Quebec’s latest guidance comes on the heels of a similar announcement earlier this week in neighbouring Ontario, where the public is asked — but not mandated — to mask up.
Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist with the McGill University Health Centre, said he was glad to learn of the new guideline but said it’s “not the ideal recommendation.”
“Because, of course, mandating the mask in all places would have been perhaps the most extreme and perhaps the most effective measure,” he said.
The hospital network has seen nearly a six-fold increase in the number of influenza cases just in the last two weeks despite respiratory virus season just starting, according to Vinh.
With RSV cases on the rise in Quebec and as a virus that circulates in schools, Vinh also said the “logical thing would be to interrupt or abort that transmission by trying to get masks in schools.”
Three nurse-led clinics coming to Montreal
The health minister also laid out some updates to Quebec’s plan to ease overcrowding in hospital emergency rooms in Montreal.
Dubé said there will be an additional clinic for a total of three clinics overseen by specialized nurse practitioners in the city. The first will open this month, followed by two more in December.
The goal of the nurse-led clinics is to ease pressure on local emergency departments and physicians, while also giving Montrealers another option for when they are sick.
The province will also expand the “one call, one service” option for parents seeking medical aid or advice to other areas, including Laval and the Montérégie region. This means pediatric patients can get an appointment if necessary by calling the existing 811 hotline.
Dubé said the province has had considerable success in freeing up beds occupied by patients who are too sick to be home alone but no longer need hospital-level care. “Fluidity teams” are being deployed to hospitals to further ensure that people aren’t occupying beds when their level of care doesn’t require them to, he added.
Daniel Desharnais, an assistant deputy health minister, did say the province is expecting “an increase in crowding in emergency rooms,” despite the actions being taken by the province to alleviate the strain. Some beds for older children could be freed up in hospitals for adults if pediatric illnesses continue to surge.
Those short-term measures were announced in early November, after Dubé announced the creation of a crisis management team to address Montreal’s overpacked ERs, particularly in pediatric hospitals. The unit is composed of about 20 people, including emergency room doctors and nurses.
— with files from Global News’ Tim Sargeant, Annabelle Olivier and The Canadian Press