Quebec to roll out rapid tests in pharmacies, urges people to work from home as omicron looms

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Quebec will begin rolling out 10 million rapid tests in pharmacies across the province as of Monday and is asking people to once again work from home, as cases and hospitalizations have seen a sharp rise in the past week. 

Dubé said health officials are monitoring the situation and the possible impact of the omicron variant ahead of the holidays, when groups of 20 are supposed to be allowed to gather. 

Dubé hasn’t said whether those gatherings will still be allowed. 

He announced Tuesday that employers should immediately once again prioritize work from home. 

Dubé also announced that 10 million rapid tests will be made available to the general population through 1,900 pharmacies as of Monday. People will have access to five free tests every 30 days, he said. 

Health officials have so far detected a “limited number” of omicron cases in Quebec, Dubé said. 

“However, experts say the situation is likely being underestimated,” he said. “What we know is that experts agree this variant is a lot more transmissible than delta. It travels faster and hits more often.”

Dubé spoke in a provincial COVID-19 update at 1 p.m. along with Quebec’s public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, and Daniel Paré, who has been overseeing vaccination operations in the province.

Dubé said the variant is believed to be two to three times more contagious than the delta variant, and that non-vaccinated people are more at risk of being infected and of developing complications. 

Though less than 10 per cent of the population eligible to be vaccinated in Quebec hasn’t received a dose, those same people make up the majority of hospitalizations and intensive unit cases, the minister said. 

There was an increase of 25 hospitalizations Tuesday, with the total number in the province at 293. There are currently 75 patients in intensive care.

“We’re going to see even more of a rise in the coming days,” Dubé said, urging all Quebecers, included those who are vaccinated, to exercise caution in their interactions with other people.

He said because there are still unanswered questions about the variant, including the severity of the illness it can cause for the vaccinated and unvaccinated, it is hard to predict how many hospitalizations it could cause as it spreads in the community. 

“Hospitalizations could rise significantly in the next weeks, especially after the holidays,” Dubé added.

WATCH | Quebec health minister explains new measures amid COVID-19 and omicron variant spread

Quebec’s health minister announces new measures amid COVID-19 and omicron variant spread

Christian Dubé provides a COVID-19 update, including the omicron variant, and announces new government measures and recommendations to combat the spread. 2:24

Province needs more vaccinators

Paré said Quebec is recruiting more people to administer vaccines and hopes to increase its rollout of third doses by January. 

The province currently has the capacity to vaccinate 300,000 people per week, but Paré said the goal is to double that number in January. He said much of the focus right now is on vaccinating five- to 11-year-olds, but that people aged 70 and over are encouraged to make their appointments for a third dose as there are still spots left. 

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Daniel Paré, director of the Quebec vaccination campaign, said the province hopes to increase its rollout of third doses in January. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Health workers are the priority group for third doses in December, Paré said, “because we’re expecting them to have to be at work.”

Third doses are being rolled out to the 60 and over age group in January, but the rollout could happen faster as more vaccinators help out. 

14 cases detected in Montreal

Montreal’s public health department says 14 cases of the omicron COVID-19 variant have now been detected in the city — and only five of them are associated with travel outside the country.

They say that means the others acquired it in Canada, which suggests limited local transmission.

The news of the variant’s spread comes as Quebec reported more than 2,000 new COVID-19 infections last Friday for the first time in nearly 11 months.

As of Monday, Quebec’s seven-day rolling average is 1,683 new cases.

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