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The COVID-19 situation in Quebec has improved in recent weeks, but the number of outbreaks in schools and whether they’re linked to the new variants circulating in the province is causing concern.
As of Monday, there were nearly 850 schools across the province reporting active COVID-19 cases and more than a dozen dealing with suspected variant cases.
Though most schools are acting quickly and shutting down in response to any suspected variants, it’s an approach experts warn may not be sustainable as the strains spread into workplaces and neighbourhoods.
“With the variants, we need to respond with force and speed once there’s an outbreak to limit the spread,” said Benoît Mâsse, a professor of public health at Université de Montréal.
“But it will be hard to be as proactive as public health authorities have been, despite it working, because at one point there will be too many outbreaks to keep up.”
Last week , the Institut national de santé publique du Québec warned that the new strains could initially spread through schools since they are where most contacts are still taking place.
On Monday, Olivier Drouin, who has kept a crowdsourced list of schools with reported cases since last summer, said by his count there are now more schools closed in Quebec than at any other point during the pandemic.
“Parents are extremely worried and also confused,” Drouin said, noting there doesn’t yet seem to be a uniform approach to handling variants in schools across the province.
In an interview on Radio-Canada on Monday , Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said he doesn’t believe variant cases are growing exponentially in Quebec yet, but called on schools to close classrooms as soon as there’s any suspicion one might be in play.
“What’s important for parents to know is that right now, that’s why we’re much more aggressive in closing classes,” Dubé said.
As of Feb. 16, the latest data available, there were 98 schools in Montreal dealing with outbreaks , including two with more than 20 cases each.
On Monday, the city’s public health department confirmed there are now seven schools in Montreal that have been forced to close for two weeks. The department could not confirm, however, whether the closures were caused by variants or the size of the outbreaks.
Since last week, at least three Montreal schools — Collège Stanislas in Outremont, Yechiva Yavne in Côte-St-Luc and École des Grands-Êtres in St-Laurent — have confirmed they’re dealing with suspected variant cases.
In Laval, the local health authority announced Monday four schools are now either partially or entirely closed because of concerns over the variant strains: Père-Vimont, Saint-Maxime, Eurêka and Équinoxe.
In Quebec City, Marguerite d’Youville elementary school was closed on Friday for the same reason .
The local health authority was still awaiting screening results on Monday to know if any of the new strains were detected. If there are, it would be the first time any of the variants are confirmed in the Quebec City area.
Overall, there are now 23 confirmed cases of the more transmissible variants across Quebec, including 18 in Montreal. Another 415 cases are considered presumptive.
The main variant confirmed so far, the B.1.1.7 strain from the United Kingdom, has been detected in Montreal, Laval and the Eastern Townships.
For Mâsse, it’s only a matter of time before one of the variants becomes the dominant strain in Quebec.
What the province does between now and then — including a potential tightening or loosening of public health measures — will determine how severe the next wave will be. But either way, he believes the next few weeks will be crucial.
Factoring into all of this, Mâsse added, is next week’s March break . He urged families to respect the measures in effect to avoid a spike similar to what was seen after the holiday break.
“We’re now facing a situation where the same thing could happen, but with the variants it could be even worse,” he said. “Even a small letting up and they will take off much before we can benefit from the vaccine campaign.”
Quebec reported 805 new COVID-19 cases on Monday , the highest number of cases in five days, and 11 more deaths. Montreal added 416 new cases and five deaths.
The province also reported that 7,396 additional vaccine doses were administered, bringing the total to 353,894.
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