Quebec imposes COVID-19 curfew; Ontario limits eligibility for PCR tests in the midst of the Omicron rise

People are walking along a street in Old Montreal after a December 30 press conference by Quebec Premier Francois Legault announcing the closure of dining rooms and a curfew that begins Dec. 31 at 7 p.m. 22:00Graham Hughes / The Canadian Press

Quebec imposes the toughest COVID-19 restrictions in the country – including a curfew that will start in time for New Year’s Eve, an end to indoor dining and a ban on gatherings in personal homes – as cases of the Omicron variant of the virus continue with rising.

Other jurisdictions across Canada are introducing less stringent measures as they work to dull a wave of COVID-19 infections that doctors and politicians warn can burden the medical system.

Ontario, Quebec and Alberta are delaying students’ return to school for a few days next month. And Ontario restricts the use of polymerase chain reaction (or PCR) COVID-19 tests, though it will artificially reduce the official inventory of daily cases. The provincial government designs this as a way to protect scarce test resources.

Nova Scotia promised to increase its capacity to administer booster shots, while Prince Edward Island urged residents to keep the New Year celebration as small as possible. And Ontario announced it would begin providing the fourth dose of COVID-19 vaccine to vulnerable people, such as long-term care home residents.

What’s going on New Year’s Eve 2021 (and what’s not happening) in Canada

During an early evening briefing in Quebec, Prime Minister François Legault pleaded with health workers to continue showing up for work.

“We are in a storm and this storm is at its peak right now,” he said, speaking in French. “I can not believe that in the coming weeks we will leave the Quebeckers without care. We really need you. Please, if you are able to come and help your colleagues, please, we really need you.”

The premiere announced the curfew at the same briefing. He said it will be in place from Friday night and will run from 6 p.m. 22:00 to 5 a.m. every day, with fines of up to $ 6,000 for violators. There will be exceptions for people whose jobs require them to be out, he said.

Quebec had a curfew earlier in the pandemic. It was a rare policy in North America, and the move was controversial. Mr. Legault acknowledged to reporters that it was difficult to prove that the previous curfew had been effective in slowing the spread of the virus, but he suggested the province had no choice but to act.

“Right now, the situation is so serious that we can not afford not to add everything we can to our toolbox,” he said.

Sally Otto, a mathematical biologist from the University of British Columbia who has done COVID-19 modeling, said that a global review of COVID-19 public health measures found that limiting assemblies, both large and small, was the most effective way to slow down the spread of viruses. She added that curfews and making protective equipment more widely available also proved to significantly reduce transmission speeds.

Quebec and Ontario are further ahead in their Omicron eruption, she said, but she noted that the intensity of the latest wave surprised many provincial authorities.

“Every province is busy,” said Dr. Otto.

On Thursday, Quebec reported another daily record of 14,188 COVID-19 cases. Experts across jurisdictions have warned that real numbers are likely to be higher than official figures because the results of many fast COVID-19 tests performed at home are not added to formal inventories.

Ontario will further muddy the water by limiting the use of PCR tests, which had previously been used by many to confirm the results of rapid antigen tests at home. The province will now reserve the sensitive laboratory-based tests for people at increased risk of being harmed by the virus. The move is billed as a way to prevent the PCR system from being overwhelmed by an increase in mild infections as vaccinated people receive Omicron.

Kieran Moore, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, acknowledged that this would bring down official case numbers, which are largely based on the results of PCR tests. But he told a media briefing the province could track the progress of the pandemic in other ways, including by testing health professionals in high-risk environments.

“This is not to cover up,” said Dr. Moore and noted that COVID-19 transmission in Ontario is widespread. “It will definitely be the persistent risk in our communities for the next six to eight weeks, so we will have a rapid increase in cases and then a slow, steady decline.”

The Government of Ontario is delaying the return to school until January 5th

Ontario has said it limits the capacity of sports venues to 50 percent or 1,000 people, whichever is lower. Meanwhile, Quebec announced Thursday that it is completely stopping indoor sports, concerts, home gatherings and attending places of worship. Indoor dining at restaurants remains acceptable in Ontario, but with reduced capacity. In Quebec, it is now completely banned.

Quebec, Ontario and Alberta all said Thursday that they are postponing the dates for when elementary and high school students return from their winter vacations – with one week in Quebec and Alberta and two days in Ontario.

At the same time, several provinces are acting to make it easier for asymptomatic people who have been tested positive for the virus to rejoin society. Ontario joined Saskatchewan on Thursday to lower the isolation period from 10 days to five for anyone in the public who has been vaccinated twice, provided they feel better and disguise themselves outside their homes.

This summer, British Columbia changed its rules in a similar way, but decided on seven days of isolation. Most provinces still follow Canada’s Public Health Agency’s current guidelines that asymptomatic people should wait at least 10 days after testing positive before leaving their homes.

The explosion of COVID-19 cases, driven by the Omicron variant, is raising alarms across the country. Although the variant turns out to be relatively mild for most who catch it, experts warn that the large number of cases can still overwhelm the medical system.

In Quebec, modeling from the Institut national d’excellence en santé et en services sociaux, a research institute reporting to the government, suggests that the number of hospitalizations over the next three weeks may exceed the number of previous COVID-19 waves in the province.

The institute’s report says that about 1 percent of new cases result in hospitalizations.

Asked if there was reason to believe Ontario would be on a different path, Dr. Moore that his province had moved faster than Quebec to approve booster vaccines.

“However, I’m anxious – I’m not going to lie – about the impact of a significant number of people in need of care,” he said.

“Because Omicron is much more transferable, it is expected that the number of admissions and impacts on the healthcare system will be significant.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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