Legault sees ‘light at end of tunnel,’ but restrictions remain

Pointing to 14 fewer COVID-19 patients in Quebec hospitals, Premier François Legault said Thursday he sees a “light at the end of the (pandemic) tunnel.” 

But, unlike Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who announced on Thursday he’d be easing COVID restrictions, Legault said with 12,000 health workers still off the job, Quebec’s even tougher restrictions will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Legault did impose a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew at the end of December, but it was lifted on Monday when in-person classes resumed, with mandatory masking and windows opened regularly for ventilation.

With 3,400 COVID patients in hospital — well below the 5,000 that public-health officials predicted in December — Legault said he won’t implement a “Plan B” for care that would be below optimal.

In Ontario, Ford said the worst is behind us,” and announced that restaurants, bars, stores, gyms, movie theatres, and places of worship can reopen on Jan. 31 at 50 per cent capacity.

“I don’t want to comment on Ontario decisions,” Legault told reporters, adding that the situation in Quebec’s hospitals remains “tight”: Forty per cent of employees are working part-time, and he’s following public-health recommendations to maintain a partial lockdown.

In addition to closing restaurants and other places where people gather, Quebec requires that customers show their vaccine passports before entering provincially owned liquor and cannabis stores, as well as stores measuring 1,500 sq. metres or more.

“Lives are at stake,” Legault added, explaining that Quebec’s health system is fragile, and a new increase in COVID infections could delay care for patients with cancer and other diseases.

“I understand quite well that people are fed up,“ he said, but “I listen to public health.”

Quebec is vaccinating about 100,000 people a day with first, second, or third doses.

Legault said junior Health Minister Lionel Carmant now has a mandate to contact the 565,000 Quebec adults who aren’t vaccinated, informing them that, once they are, their risk of ending up in intensive care, where a high proportion of unvaccinated COVID patients now are treated, will go down.

In addition to contacting individuals, the campaign will focus on communities where the vaccination rate is below the Quebec average.

When the Omicron variant was identified, Quebec public health said a booster would be required six months after a second dose, while Ontario decided to make boosters available three months after a second shot.

“I admitted that it was a better decision,” Legault said of Ontario’s approach.

Quebec opted for the three-month delay in December, giving priority to people over age 60, who are deemed at higher risk of serious disease.

The proportion of Quebecers over 60 who’ve had their third dose is now 72 per cent, he said, about the same as in Ontario.

“I talked to Doug,” Legault said before the premiers’ weekly telephone conference on Thursday.

Legault and Ford have been pressuring Ottawa to substantially boost Canada Health Transfer payments to the provinces, since the latter don’t have the same tax base as Ottawa and urgently need money for health care.

The federal response has been that Ottawa has given them large sums to deal with the pandemic, a claim the premiers reject, saying they need more money to pay for health care in the years ahead.

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