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The Quebec government will extend its mask mandate for indoor public spaces and on public transit until mid-May, the province’s health minister announced Thursday.

The decision to maintain masks follows a recommendation from the province’s interim health director, Dr. Luc Boileau, who told a news conference that while there are signs the COVID-19 situation is improving in the province, the data is still unclear and Quebecers need to remain prudent.

Dr. Boileau told reporters community transmission may have started to slow down, adding that the number of new daily hospitalizations linked to the disease also seems to be trending down.

Masks remain necessary, Dr. Boileau said, “because there is a real pandemic situation in Quebec right now. It seems to be not as (bad) as it was a week ago, but it’s still very heavy. If the numbers are really showing a drop, then we can revise our recommendation to the government.”

The province had initially planned to end its mask mandate by mid-April but on April 5 extended it until the end of the month after a sixth wave of COVID-19 was declared.

Health Minister Christian Dube said in a statement that the decision to extend it further was based on “a cautious approach” related to uncertainty about how the epidemiological situation will evolve, “in particular due to the Easter long weekend which has just ended, and which for the moment makes future data difficult to predict.”

Quebec and Prince Edward Island are the only two provinces still requiring people to wear masks indoors. P.E.I.’s mandate is in place until April 28.

A government health-care research institute that provides weekly projections said Thursday it expects a reduction in new hospitalizations in the next two weeks to 200 per day, but it also cautioned the impact of Easter gatherings isn’t yet seen in the available data. The Institut national d’excellence en sante et en services sociaux, an organization which reports to Québec’s Minister of Health and Social services, said it expects the number of hospital beds occupied by COVID-19 patients, as well as the number of intensive care patients, to stabilize.

Health officials reported 38 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus on Thursday and a 24-patient rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Officials say 2,405 people are hospitalized with the disease, with 88 people in intensive care, a drop of 13 from the previous day.

Authorities reported 10,932 health-care workers are absent due to COVID-19.

While the numbers remain high, an assistant deputy health minister told reporters the difference between the current situation and early January, when hospitalization numbers were similar, is there’s less of an impact on operations.

Immunity from a high number of infections and vaccination mean this wave has been less difficult in hospitals, Dr. Lucie Opatrny said, adding that many of those in hospital tested positive while hospitalized for another condition. Those who are sick also spend less time in hospital. Less than five per cent of hospitalized patients need intensive care, far less than during the Omicron wave.

But officials said they are also contending with an unexpected late influenza season. “It is the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that we have both COVID as well as influenza, really, at the same time in people,” said Dr. Opatrny.

“Both conditions have very much overlapping symptoms, and both are being seen in the emergency rooms and are causing additional strain on the emergency rooms.”

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