As Quebec recorded the lowest number of new cases of COVID-19 since September, a microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre warned it’s too early to loosen health restrictions.
“The wild card is the introduction of these new variants,” Dr. Raymond Tellier said.
“Because these variants are so much more contagious, if you stop taking precautions or if you open up a little bit too much, the variant is going to escape and it’s not clear given its very high transmissibility that we will be able to put the genie back in the bottle,” he said.
The 666 new cases reported Sunday marked the lowest daily number of new infections since late September.
“It’s the best day in five months,” Health Minister Christian Dubé said on Twitter.
However, he urged Quebecers not to develop a false sense of security as “the threat of new variants is very present.”
Premier François Legault announced last week that COVID-19 restrictions would be loosened during March break so families can go to movie theatres while masked, swim in public pools and skate in arenas.
Tellier said that while he understands people’s need to unwind after nearly a year of health restrictions, the government must be extremely vigilant to prevent the spread of new strains.
“These are difficult decisions to make, but certainly there is a widespread concern among infectious disease specialists that we have to treat these variants very, very cautiously,” said Tellier, who is also an associate professor at McGill University.
“It would really be a shame if we were to open up too soon and then have to face an explosion of infections, which with the variant are going to be much more difficult to contain,” he added.
Cases of the South African variant have been reported in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, while a Quebec City school was closed Friday after an outbreak of a variant.
A strain that has swept the United Kingdom is expected to become dominant in the United States by mid-March or mid-April, Tellier noted.
“There is no way that you can prevent this variant from becoming dominant if you have a susceptible population,” he said. “So the game plan right now is to try to keep the transmission of these variants contained long enough for vaccination to catch up.”
Jay Kaufman, an epidemiologist at McGill University, said he was concerned about a possible rise in cases over the March break if people socialize or travel.
He noted that while the new strains pose a concern, cases in the U.K. have been dropping despite the new dominant variant.
“We just need to keep up the distancing and the masking until we can get a lot of vaccination completed,” Kaufman said.