François Legault Omicron window

Quebec’s COVID measures are now just one giant shrug

“Two years in, should the Quebec government still be this surprised, this overwhelmed, this unprepared, this unable to listen to the scientific community to better tackle variants that we saw appear in Europe months before they came our way?”

Throw whatever on the wall and see if it sticks seems to be the going advice from the Quebec Health Ministry these days. Overwhelmed and, once again, unprepared by the sheer volume of COVID cases, our government seems to be hovering somewhere between haplessly trying to mitigate risk and just throwing its hands up in the air and deciding to go back to business as usual. 

I know it’s easy to criticize and hard to govern. I know that no public official was ever supposed to be prepared for a global pandemic that has killed so many and depleted financial resources, healthcare staff and morale around the world. I don’t think anyone expected our government to get it right all the time, or not be forced to occasionally backtrack on decisions when new scientific information constantly keeps rolling in. We get that — we’re not daft. 

But I’m not sure that, two years in, the Quebec government should still be this surprised, this overwhelmed, this unprepared, this unable to listen to the scientific community to better tackle variants that we saw appear in Europe months before they came our way. It’s like we’re living in a perpetual Groundhog Day, repeating the same dumb mistakes. It was only a few weeks ago that Premier Legault was issuing promises for 20-person Christmas gatherings (a promise even a complete public-health novice such as myself predicted he would be forced to backtrack on) and now he’s giving up on even basic mitigation measures and just slapping a curfew on everything and hoping for the best. 

Instead of the solid, long-term solutions that pandemic and public-health experts have repeatedly asked for, we’re seeing short-sighted and questionable advice aimed at appeasing voters, mixed messages, reactionary policies and a government intent on prioritizing business interests over protecting the public.  

Decreasing isolation time for positive cases is a dangerous gamble

Deciding to decrease the isolation time for vaccinated people who test positive from 10 days to 5 days is a crapshoot decision. Yes, other Canadian provinces have done the same. But for it to be a sound decision, it requires the ability to be able to test positive before isolating, and then on the fifth day, to test negative before returning to work or school to ensure you’re no longer contagious. 

Only, rapid tests are as hard to find right now in Quebec as Cabbage Patch Kids were during the Christmas of 1983 (or a high IQ on that Mexico-bound Sunwing flight with Quebec influencers, if you want a more recent example), and, starting this week, PCR tests are no longer available to the general public. They’re only accessible to high-risk individuals — and to those able to pay for private tests. 

Since asymptomatic people who tested positive can remain contagious well after five days if their viral load is high, where does that leave us? Being able to walk out of our home and straight into a workplace or classroom and infect those around us — with the full blessings of the government. 

Pointless theatrics, not real measures 

You want more pointless theatrics meant to convince an exhausted public now dealing with its second curfew (one of the few enacted around the world and with no scientific basis for its effectiveness)? Quebec is expected to soon extend its vaccine passports program to both liquor and cannabis stores. If you’re unvaccinated, you won’t be able to access either. It may sound like the government is playing hardball, cracking down on the unvaccinated; many of whom are now overloading our healthcare system and stretching staff to their limits. But it’s just optics meant to appease a public aggravated at conflicting messages and a curfew that does nothing but put the most vulnerable at risk. Quebecers can already get their wine at supermarkets and deps, and before weed was legalized, a black market flourished just fine, and will do so again if needed. Not to mention you can order both weed and alcohol online these days. 

The government needs to spend more time enacting real measures that will protect the most people. And that means keeping those who test positive away from the vulnerable. It means availability and rapidity of tests, not people lining up for hours next to each other, freezing in minus -20C trying to get tested or get their booster shots. It means air filters in schools. It means extra PPEs and N95 masks to ensure healthcare staff are protected and not the source of outbreaks in healthcare settings. It means ensuring people are compensated to stay home and protected from pushy bosses, so they’re not forced to go back to work while sick and contagious. 

People’s health should not be sacrificed for business interests 

While I can certainly understand why the Quebec Employers Council is now pleased that Quebec decreased the isolation time from 10 days to 5 because of labour shortages, and while society needs to be able to function, like Olivier Drouin — better known as the founder of COVID Écoles Québec, a parent who’s been meticulously reporting on COVID outbreaks in Quebec schools over the past two years — says in this CityNews report, “We simply can’t afford to do so at the expense of people’s [short and long-term] health.” In the interview, Drouin uses the example of his own daughter who was asymptomatic and still contagious after seven days. 

It’s unconscionable to shorten the isolation period when one considers who the people usually asked (minimum-wage workers, daycare workers, teachers, healthcare staff, etc.) to take these chances are. The people often urging the government to make these decisions are not the ones on the frontlines risking their lives. They’re the ones with access to private PCR tests, access to comfortable and safe isolation spaces and work-from-home options. And yet we keep asking Quebecers to ignore the risks and get back to work. Thankfully, some are resisting. 

Kudos to Montreal Public Health

Dr. Myèlne Drouin Montreal public health
Montreal Public Health Director Dr. Mylène Drouin (Santé Montréal)

On Monday, when Montreal’s public health department decided to suspend a provincial order allowing children and educators in daycares that have been exposed to COVID to remain in daycare settings, I felt a case of déja-vu wash over me. 

We’ve been here before. 

A year ago, when Montreal was in the throes of the first COVID wave and dealing with half of the province’s cases, the city’s public health decided to take its own action. It set up mobile testing booths across the island and even sent its own staff to the Montreal airport to hand out COVID information. Dr. Mylène Drouin has often displayed much more proactive leadership than the provincial government in dealing with COVID. 

With the latest news, she’s chosen to override the provincial directive, just like she chose to ignore conflicting messages coming from Legault last Christmas. The Premier was allowing gatherings of 10 people, and Drouin posted her own video urging Montrealers to limit them as much as possible. Within days, and buckling under public pressure and backlash from daycare unions, as well as the scientific and medical community, the government backtracked on the latest measures for daycares. On Tuesday, the province announced that children in daycares, who have been in contact with a positive case, must now once again isolate for 10 days.

The messaging is a mess

But this constant flip-flopping has only added to the confusion. Right now, it’s, as one reader put it, to quote the Genesis song, “The Land of Confusion.” The government is saying, “if you’ve had COVID, hold off on your booster shot.” Okay, but how am I to know if I’ve had COVID if I can’t test for COVID or if I can’t pay for a private PCR test? I can’t monitor my own health, I can’t contact-trace, I can’t take any meaningful precautions for myself and for others, other than to blindly isolate on the off chance I may be infectious. But if I have a boss that won’t accept that and wants me back to work, how do I protect myself past Day 5 without any proof of possible contagion? 

We’re being told that we need N95 masks to protect ourselves form Omicron, but we’re ordered to take off our N95 masks and put on a surgical mask when we arrive at a hospital or a vaccination clinic. We were initially told to isolate for 14 days, it was reduced to 10 days, then to 5 days, then 0 days, and now back to 5 days, and tomorrow it could go back to 10 days. 

We’re told to isolate after testing positive, but we’re unable to get a hold of any tests to confirm contagion, or any tests to confirm our negative status. We’ve been told that PCR tests are much more reliable than rapid tests but are now told PCR tests will no longer be available to the general public because our system is overwhelmed. And in all this confusing madness, our Premier is trying to convince us that walking our dog after 10 p.m. is the real risk here? 

I get that governments are expected to make decisions based on the best available evidence and practices. It’s inevitable that tensions will often arise between the desire to act quickly and to protect the public, and the need for our society to remain productive. Rapidly changing realities, information, as well as priorities (depending on who you’re speaking to and where you’re getting advice from) will cause confusion, dissent and tension. 

But for the past two years, I’d venture to say that most Quebecers have worked hard at protecting themselves, their families and each other from this deadly virus. We have an incredibly high vaccination rate and overwhelmingly complied with public health measures and the first curfew. 

But this government and its poor leadership, often influenced by business priorities, lacking transparency, and often shielded from the consequences of its decisions by its own privilege, has often not made it easy for us. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.