As COVID-19 variants begin to snake their way through Quebec, experts say the speed at which they are detected is critical to mitigate their spread.
“There could be significantly more variants circulating in Quebec than we think,” said Dr. Benoît Mâsse, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at l’Université de Montréal.
“We can’t avoid them, but we still have to know the extent to which they’re circulating because if they’re more contagious, that means the measures we have in place wouldn’t be sufficient to control community transmission.”
On Tuesday, health officials in Abitibi-Témiscamingue announced that two cases of the South African variant of COVID-19 were detected among people who got sick at the beginning of January, neither of whom had travelled. Their cases were linked to an outbreak of about 30 people.
“This doesn’t change anything with our methods right now because in the region, since the start of the pandemic, we had strict management of our positive cases and contacts, preventive isolation, respect of measures,” said Dr. Lyse Landry, the region’s public health director.
Abitibi-Témiscamingue has seen just 734 cases since the pandemic began. In regions with higher daily case numbers, like Montreal, measures might have to be adapted if variants begin to spread among the community, Mâsse said.
“What I try to say to my friends is enjoy the museums and the stores because they can close pretty quickly if the variant starts appearing in large numbers,” he said.
Though daily case numbers across the province are declining, Mâsse said they seem to have plateaued in Montreal.
“That could be caused by several things, including a variant that has begun to circulate,” he said, adding there has been a fairly lengthy delay between the detection of positive COVID-19 cases and their distinction as variants.
“What’s most worrisome about the news (in Abitibi) is not so much that there was a South African variant that was detected in Quebec,” he said. “It’s more so the information that it was discovered on samples that were collected four weeks ago.”
He pointed out that four weeks is how long it took for Quebec’s second wave to become rampant enough that the province had to reinstate a lockdown in October; it’s also how long it took for daily case numbers to jump from around 1,200 per day to more than 2,500 per day between December and January.
“Four weeks in the life of an epidemic is very long,” Mâsse said.
While Quebec has announced plans to ramp up its efforts to locate variants across the province, the time it takes to get the ball rolling could be critical.