The word is on everyone’s lips, including those of Prime Minister François Legault: deconfinement. After the winter and the sanitary measures must come a gradual reopening of the economy. But what if the coronavirus variants came to confuse the issue?
The date was circled among many Quebeckers. Monday February 8. After a “shock treatment” imposed by the Legault government, it was at that time that Quebec had to resume a normal life, at least partially.
Last week, François Legault was optimistic. Reopening the economy in certain regions is likely, he said. “We should, if the trend continues, be able to tell you that certain instructions have been relaxed.”
There is a shadow on the board, underlines the expert in microbiology Benoit Barbeau: the variants of the coronavirus. Arrivals from England, for example, these coronavirus mutations threaten the peaceful return to normality of the province.
Last I heard, a variant was reproducing in Quebec: the one from Great Britain. Friday, he had infected eight Quebecers.
On the hunt for the variant
So what are these variants that worry so much? Basically, genetic modifications to the original coronavirus, the one that comes from Wuhan and that is called SARS-CoV-2. There are dozens of them, but three of them are closely monitored at Public Health: a British strain, a Brazilian strain and a South African strain.
On Friday, the Quebec National Public Health Laboratory confirmed its intention tointensify the monitoring of variants. This is because these modifications to the original coronavirus can be more contagious, more virulent, or even more resistant to vaccines.
According to recent data, the British variant is not more violent. The vaccines available in Quebec would also be effective against it.
On the other hand, the English variant would be up to 80% more contagious than the original coronavirus.
“It is a variant that is not known to increase the severity of the disease and the number of deaths. But it is certain that if it infects elderly people, there is a chance that it will increase the number of hospitalizations, ”warned Friday the chief microbiologist of the Quebec Public Health Laboratory, Michel Roger.
Not so fast
In the context, Benoit Barbeau is surprised to hear François Legault evoke a new deconfinement.
“I would tend to consider maintaining the measures. We are facing a turning point in the pandemic. We talk a lot about variants, we have our problems. This means that we must be more preventive than proactive, ”analyzes this professor from the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM).
“The government tends, at times, to launch good news, to suggest deconfinement, and finds itself having to reverse its decisions,” he recalls.
Before the holidays, the “COVID trio” notably announced special measures for Christmas gatherings, before retracing their steps a few days later.
“If it had to be done again, I would not open the door to two days of gatherings at Christmas”, agreed the Prime Minister at the end of this saga.
The question of borders
François Legault is aware of the risks of the British variant. “If the variant were to settle in Quebec as in the United Kingdom, it would be a disaster in our hospitals,” he said himself last week.
In neighboring Ontario, variant infections number in the dozens, and Public Health expects it to be behind most of the new cases as of March.
To reduce transmission of the variant, the Prime Minister was counting on the cancellation of non-essential flights abroad. He partially won his case when the federal government announced on Friday suspension of air travel to Mexico and the Caribbean.
According to public health expert Roxane Borgès Da Silva, this is only one of the steps that will reduce the risk.
“We have this unknown and very dangerous variable that is the variant”, underlines this associate professor at the School of Public Health of the University of Montreal (ESPUM). For her, the Government of Quebec must also adopt the precautionary principle and remain patient in its deconfinement.
Maintain the curfew?
Deconfin? Will not deconfin? One thing is certain: François Legault maintains that the flagship measure of winter, the curfew, works.
“There is no direct evidence, but since the curfew has been enforced, there are fewer visits to homes, there is less contagion, especially among people 65 and over. “, he reiterated Thursday.
Data collected by Metro show that Montrealers travel much less since its inception.
On the main road arteries of the metropolis, trips after 8 p.m. are reduced by 63%. In the metro, the STM “has regained the level of ridership […] known during the first confinement in April 2020, where only essential trips were allowed ”.
Figures that clearly demonstrate the ability of the curfew to limit private gatherings, underlines Marie-France Raynault, professor emeritus at ESPUM.
“I wouldn’t be in favor of easing the curfew,” she says. On the other hand, perhaps we could open libraries, for example, where the risk is very controlled. We could perhaps open museums, where we know we can control traffic. ”
Roxane Borgès Da Silva agrees, especially “as long as we do not have information on the variant”.
She invites François Legault to remain cautious in his promises to Quebecers.
“We have to tell ourselves that we are in a new way of operating. We must stop clinging to January 11, February 8, these kinds of dates… We will be in the long term in a society where the reduction of contacts will be the key. modus operandi», She emphasizes.
François Legault will announce if he is indeed moving forward with partial deconfinement at the start of the week.