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Quebec to focus variant testing, increase vaccinations in hard-hit Montreal

MONTREAL — Quebec will send a larger proportion of vaccines to hard-hit Montreal and devote most of its efforts to screen for novel coronavirus variants in that city, Health Minister Christian Dube said Thursday.
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MONTREAL — Quebec will send a larger proportion of vaccines to hard-hit Montreal and devote most of its efforts to screen for novel coronavirus variants in that city, Health Minister Christian Dube said Thursday.

By next week, all positive COVID-19 tests in Montreal will be screened for variants, Dube told reporters. Moments later, however, he said the government may not achieve that goal. "Maybe I'll come back next Friday and I'll say we're only at 70 per cent in Montreal," he said.

Three variants of the virus are believed to be more transmissible than the main version circulating in Quebec. The variant first detected in the United Kingdom is also believed to be more virulent. The two other variants of concern were first identified in Brazil and South Africa. 

Quebec's public health department has not decided whether to screen positive samples solely for the U.K. variant — which has begun spreading in Quebec — or for all three variants of concern, Dube said.

He offered few details on the plan to increase vaccinations in Montreal, which has reported around half the new COVID-19 cases in the province over the past week and almost all the cases linked to new variants.

Dube said he can’t give a timeline for vaccinations because the federal government hasn’t told him when Quebec will receive more vaccine. “The only thing I’m being told so far is 1.3 million doses at the end of March — that’s the only guarantee I have,” he said. 

He warned that the spread of the variants could reverse the decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations seen in recent weeks in Quebec. "The trend is fragile, the arrival of the new variants could quickly change that situation."

There are currently 48 confirmed or suspected cases of new variants in the Montreal area and three confirmed cases elsewhere in the province, public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda said. He added that it's "illogical to think" Quebec has detected all the cases of new variants in the province.

Opposition parties have criticized the government's progress on identifying variants, saying Quebec has fallen behind other provinces. 

Earlier on Thursday, Premier Francois Legault defended the province's efforts and suggested the higher number of confirmed cases of variants in Ontario and Alberta could be due to their residents' closer ties to the U.K.

Legault said 8.5 per cent of positive tests in Quebec are being sequenced, which is the process laboratories use to confirm the exact type of variant that is causing the disease. Screening, however, allows health officials to detect the presence of certain variants without knowing which one.

Ontario Public Health said Thursday it has been screening all positive tests for mutations associated with variants since Feb. 3 and that all tests that screen positive are sequenced. That level of surveillance is expected to continue until March 3, the agency said in an email Thursday. 

Legault said the spread of variants will play a big role in the decisions around what health orders will be imposed during spring break week, which begins March 1. He said Quebec could extend stricter measures in the province’s red zones until mid-March and hasn’t ruled out setting up checkpoints at the Ontario-Quebec border.

Quebec reported 1,121 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday and 37 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus, including eight in the prior 24 hours. Officials said hospitalizations dropped by 44, to 874, and that 143 people were in intensive care, a drop of five. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 11, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press