Quebec’s top public health official said this week that the peak of the pandemic’s sixth wave has clearly passed and the province is ready to end its mask mandate for indoor public spaces on May 14.
“All the indicators are down, be it the number of cases, the number of health-care employees who are positive (for COVID-19), the number of hospitalizations,” interim public health director Dr. Luc Boileau told reporters in Quebec City. “The whole portrait is getting better and better.”
Dr. Boileau said masking will remain mandatory on public transportation and in health-care facilities. It will also be recommended in seniors residences and other facilities that may be home to vulnerable people.
“The virus is not leaving us on the 14th,” Dr. Boileau cautioned. “It will continue to be there.”
He said it’s possible the decline in the number of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations will slow once the mask mandate is lifted, but he doesn’t expect it to lead to a rise in new cases.
Roxane Borges Da Silva, a public health professor at the University of Montreal, said there will be more COVID-19 transmission in the province once the mask mandate is lifted.
“For sure, the virus will circulate more,” she said in an interview Wednesday. She said she hopes that will only mean it takes longer for the current wave to subside, but it is possible the number of new cases will rise.
Quebec will be the last province in Canada to lift its masking requirement. Prince Edward Island, the only other province with a mask mandate for public areas, lifted the health order on Friday.
Dr. Boileau said it’s unlikely the mandate will be brought back, even though a seventh wave of COVID-19 is expected this fall. But he admits that could change. “We are not expecting to reintroduce any obligations for the wearing of the mask, or any other measures, but we do not know what’s going to happen,” he said.
Dr. Catherine Hankins, a public health professor at McGill University, said that with warmer weather on the way, it’s good timing for Quebec to lift its mask mandate.
“We are definitely on the downward slope of the sixth wave,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “We don’t know what’s going to happen next, but it looks like we have a bit of a reprieve for a few months, hopefully.”
However, she said it will be important to watch if cases of other respiratory infections, such as influenza, start to rise when the mandate is lifted.
The mask announcement came the same day that Quebec’s statistics institute reported that the province’s life expectancy rose to 83 years in 2021, after a “significant decrease” in 2020 attributed to COVID-19. Life expectancy for Quebecers hit 82.9 years in 2019 before dropping to 82.3 in 2020.
The provincial statistics agency said excess mortality in the province was 4.5 per cent between the beginning of the pandemic and March 12, 2022.
That translates to 6,400 more deaths than would normally have been expected during that period, well below the more than 15,000 COVID-19 deaths that the province has reported. Dr. Boileau has said at least some of those deaths were people who had the disease when they died but for whom it was not their primary cause of death.
Premier François Legault told reporters at the province’s legislature that the data shows that Quebec’s efforts have paid off.
“What this says is that the measures that we put in place over the past two years have had results,” he said. “Of course, one death is one death too many, but thanks to the measures, thanks to masks, thanks to all the efforts we made on vaccination, we find that Quebec has had fewer deaths than the rest of Canada, than the United States, than the rest of the world.”
Dr. Boileau, however, said the 6,400 figure almost surely under-represents the true COVID-19 death toll. He said part of the reason excess deaths were lower than the number of official COVID-19 deaths may be that other diseases, including influenza, were less present in the province during the pandemic.
The statistics agency said Quebec’s excess mortality was lower than the 6.2 per cent observed in the rest of Canada and well below the 18 per cent seen the United States.
Several European countries, including France, Spain and the United Kingdom, had higher excess mortality rates than Canada, while New Zealand and Australia saw mortality drop below expected levels during the pandemic.
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