Quebec’s second wave driven by community transmission, muddled messaging, expert says

MONTREAL — Quebecers following the COVID-19 news in recent days may be feeling a certain sense of deja vu.

The government has been announcing 700, 800, even close to 900 new cases per day — numbers not seen since the first wave of the pandemic swept through the province this spring.

And on Monday, after a summer of relative freedom and encouraging news on case counts and hospitalizations, the government ordered its largest cities to return to a kind of modified lockdown, closing bars and restaurant dining rooms as of Thursday and telling people not to invite anyone to their homes, with few exceptions.

In just over a month, government leaders went from describing the province’s situation as “one of the places where COVID-19 is best controlled in the world” to “critical.”

The reversal highlights both the virus’s ability to spread silently and the Quebec government’s failure to get one step ahead, according to one expert.

“I think of it a bit like a fire, but it’s an invisible fire that’s been burning, and it’s been gradually building and building,” said Matthew Oughton, an assistant professor in the department of medicine at McGill University.

The province’s public health director, Horacio Arruda, has said transmission during the second wave is largely occurring in the community, fuelled by private gatherings and a relaxing of safety measures such as physical distancing and handwashing.

“We forgot,” Arruda said at a news conference on Monday. “We wanted to act like COVID-19 was no longer there, but it’s there.”

At the same news conference, Premier Francois Legault announced that three regions, including Montreal and Quebec City, were being put at the red, or maximum COVID-19 alert level for a 28-day period in an effort to “break” the second wave.

He said the new measures, which include closing museums, libraries and bars but leaving stores and schools open, was to limit instances where people can have “prolonged” contact of more than 10 minutes together.

“It’s true that Quebecers like parties, and it’s a good thing we like parties, but we have to make an effort,” he said.

Oughton, an infectious diseases specialist, said the virus had been spreading throughout the summer, even when case numbers seemed low.

The pandemic appeared under control because the main spreaders were young, healthy individuals who were less likely to seek medical attention, he said.

“What a highly contagious virus does is it spreads, and it starts slowly but it gets faster and faster and faster,” he said in a phone interview.

“And usually by the time it gets to the point where you’re aware of the problem, it’s already not only increasing linearly, but exponentially.”

Some 50 per cent of new recent cases have been found in people age 30 and under. But Oughton said the virus eventually spreads to more vulnerable groups, causing a delayed effect on hospitalizations and deaths.

While the rise in cases has roughly corresponded with the opening of schools, Oughton believes the rise in transmission began earlier.

Currently, there have been confirmed cases in 443 schools, according to government data, but Oughton says in most instances the cases appear to be scattered, suggesting they originated elsewhere.

“I think the fire was already lit, but it was under the radar screen because the population that was spreading it is not the population that would give a lot of red flags unless you’re very actively looking for it,” he said.

While Quebec is once again Canada’s pandemic hot spot, Legault noted that the province is hardly the only place to have a resurgence in cases, nor to reimplement some of the restrictive measures from the spring.

“We will have to open at some point, look at whether we can regain a bit of normal life, then if there’s more, or if there is less collaboration from the population, well, we’ll have to return backwards,” he said.

“But it’s a fragile balance and it’s like that in most countries.”

While Legault rejected blame, Oughton believes the Quebec government’s failure to send a clear message contributed to the current situation.

Government messages to reduce contacts and not gather often came across “like a suggestion” rather than a rule, he said, and before Monday, the government had not yet clarified what measures would be taken at each alert level.

He also believes the government needs to quickly adopt a contact tracing app, which it has agreed to do in the coming days, as well as impose mask-wearing in classrooms in order to prevent future transmission, which it has not.

While he supports the government’s decision to impose new restrictions, Oughton believes many measures could have been taken earlier.

“That being said, it’s better to act today than next week,” he said.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Cilantro and Chive was voted in the top three in no less than 13 different categories in the 2020 Best of Lacombe Readers Choice Awards. Photo by Megan Roth/Lacombe Express
Cilantro and Chive opening in Red Deer

There will now be two Cilantro and Chive locations. The restaurant announced… Continue reading

People wear face masks as they wait to enter a store in Montreal on October 24, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Canadian provinces hardest hit by COVID-19 reach sobering milestones

MONTREAL — The Canadian provinces hardest hit by the global COVID-19 pandemic… Continue reading

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Federal study details workers hit hardest by tax, benefit system for extra earnings

OTTAWA — Newly released documents show Finance Department officials calculated that workers… Continue reading

Cenovus. (The Canadian Press)
Cenovus to buy Husky Energy in deal valued at $23.6B, company will remain in Alberta

CALGARY — Cenovus Energy Inc. is buying Husky Energy Inc. in an… Continue reading

test tube with the blood test is on the table next to the documents. Positive test for coronavirus covid-19. The concept of fighting a dangerous Chinese disease.
The latest numbers on COVID-19 in Canada for Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020

The latest numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Canada as of 10:49… Continue reading

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

Alice Kolisnyk, deputy director of the Red Deer Food Bank, says the agency expects an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Every new subscription to the Red Deer Advocate includes a $50 donation to the food bank. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Support the food bank with a subscription to the Red Deer Advocate

The community’s most vulnerable members are always in need of a hand,… Continue reading

NDP Leader John Horgan celebrates his election win in the British Columbia provincial election in downtown Vancouver, B.C., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
John Horgan says he will work across party lines to find ideas that work for B.C.

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s election results show a divided province with Liberal… Continue reading

President Donald Trump gestures from the top of the steps of Air Force 1 at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. When people in the United States talk about moving to Canada to escape four more years of Donald Trump, it’s usually either a punchline or a pipe dream. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Susan Walsh
Move to Canada? A pipe dream for some Americans is a parachute for Canadian expats

WASHINGTON, Wash. — When people in the United States talk about moving… Continue reading

The Cogeco logo is seen in Montreal on Thursday, October 22, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Five things to watch for in the Canadian business world in the coming week

TORONTO — Five things to watch for in the Canadian business world… Continue reading

President Donald Trump, left, and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden during the second and final presidential debate Thursday, Oct. 22, 2020, at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. Stock market investors are breathing a little easier despite potentially facing higher taxes as the possibility of a contested U.S. presidential election appears to be fading, say investment experts. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Patrick Semansky
Markets concerns about contested U.S. election fading with Biden lead in polls

TORONTO — Stock market investors are breathing a little easier despite potentially… Continue reading

(File photo)
Ontario records more than 1,000 new daily COVID-19 cases for first time

Ontario is reporting more than 1,000 mew daily cases of COVID-19 for… Continue reading

Pope Francis delivers his message during the Angelus noon prayer from the window of his studio overlooking St.Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
Pope names 13 new cardinals, includes US Archbishop Gregory

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Sunday named 13 new cardinals, including… Continue reading

Dave Mercer, President of Unifor Local 2121, overlooks Conception Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Terra Nova floating production vessel that is anchored there on Friday, October 23, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly
As N.L.’s oil industry sputters, the emotional toll of the cod moratorium looms large

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Dave Mercer spent the early 1990s roaming around… Continue reading

Most Read