The priority must be to protect the health network from being overwhelmed in the coming weeks, experts say.

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As Quebec set another record Sunday for hospitalizations and people in intensive care with COVID-19, experts called for further efforts to entice the unvaccinated to get a jab.


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Dr. Catherine Hankins, a professor of public health at McGill University and co-chair of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, called on governments to act locally to increase vaccination rates and globally to make vaccines available to developing countries.

“It’s not over until it’s over for everybody,” said Hankins, who expressed concern that the surge in cases, driven by the highly contagious Omicron variant, could overwhelm the health network in the coming weeks.

On Sunday, Quebec reported 2,436 people in hospital with COVID-19 — an all-time high — up 140 from the previous day. Of them, 256 were in intensive care, also a record.

Sunday’s 11,007 new cases brought the seven-day rolling average for new infections to 14,751 (counting only PCR tests conducted by the province). Another 23 patients died, marking the sixth day in a row with more than 20 deaths announced.


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That brings Quebec’s total to 739,293 infections and 11,940 deaths to date.

There were 104,033 vaccine doses administered on Friday and 73,305 on Saturday as Quebec ramped up vaccinations. As of Sunday morning, 1.9 million Quebecers had a third dose of vaccine, or about 22 per cent of the population.

People pass through a rainbow of colours as they go through the vaccination centre at Palais des Congrès on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.
People pass through a rainbow of colours as they go through the vaccination centre at Palais des Congrès on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

It is critical to keep promoting vaccination as pressure mounts on the health network, Hankins said.

“Admissions have not peaked yet,” she warned. “I think we all want to avoid a COVID triage based on what people think your chances of survival are.”

But making vaccination compulsory — an option floated Friday by federal Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos — should only be considered as a last resort, once other alternatives have been exhausted, said Jocelyn Maclure, a professor of philosophy at McGill University and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chair in Human Nature and Technology.


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“We should always have a gradual approach and infringe the least upon basic rights,” he said.

“Vaccine mandates would be at the very end of that escalation.”

With new cases soaring, Quebec will require a vaccine passport to shop in person at Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) stores and Société québécoise du cannabis (SQDC) outlets starting Jan. 18.

Health Minister Christian Dubé posted on Twitter on Friday that the daily average for first-dose appointment requests jumped to 6,000 from about 1,500 after the new requirement was announced.

But critics are saying with hospital admissions rising, Quebec needs to take stronger action to prevent the health system from being overloaded.

Provincial projections last week warned that hospitalizations could surpass 3,000 by mid-January, with more than 400 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, exceeding the network’s current capacity.


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On Friday, Quebec’s Collège des médecins demanded the government act more quickly to increase restrictions on unvaccinated people.

“The vaccinated population can no longer suffer in silence … while the unvaccinated occupy one in two acute care beds and the majority of intensive-care beds,” Collège president Mauril Gaudreault wrote in a letter published on the organization’s website .

He demanded that the requirement for a vaccine passport be extended to “cover a vast number of businesses and public spaces.”

The vaccine passport currently only requires two doses, but that will be extended to three once all adults have had access to a booster.

Maclure said while the idea of vaccine mandates might hold a certain appeal, it is not feasible physically to force people to be vaccinated, while imposing fines on the non-vaccinated would require careful consideration, he said.


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“Do we want to live in that kind of society?” he asked.

In the short term, what’s needed is measures “most likely to reduce transmission,” he said. “We have to do everything we can to prevent the health network from being overwhelmed.”

For example, the requirement for a vaccine passport should be extended to hair salons and university classrooms once in-person classes resume, he suggested.

Nick King, an associate professor in McGill University’s department of the Social Studies of Medicine, agreed enforcing mandatory vaccination “would be very complicated” and risk causing a backlash.

“Even if you could implement it, would it address the short-term problems?” he asked.

However, King said he favoured measures to step up pressure on the unvaccinated and make “it harder and harder to go about your daily life.”


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For example, schools could require students and their families to be vaccinated, he said. Travel restrictions requiring vaccination to take a plane or train should remain in place, he said.

“If you are unvaccinated, there are going to be consequences,” he said.

Dr. Dick Menzies, Canada Research Chair in Tuberculosis Research at the Montreal Chest Institute and McGill International TB Centre, said the reluctance of some to get the jab is contributing to the surge in cases.

“We’re really seeing an uncontrolled epidemic. We have never seen it rise so fast,” said Menzies, who filled in at the Montreal General Hospital Sunday for a colleague off because of COVID-19.

“We have to seriously look at a better testing strategy,” he added, noting asymptomatic people with COVID-19 are spreading the disease because of a lack of access to tests. Antigen self-testing kits are also not entirely reliable, he added.


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The pressure on the health system means diseases like cancer and TB are being diagnosed in other patients far too late, he said.

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