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COVID-19: Calls for Quebec public health chief to testify as another region goes red

MONTREAL — Amid a worsening COVID-19 situation and with another region moving to the maximum alert level on Friday, Quebec's opposition parties called on the government to allow the province's public health director to be questioned over the pandemic

MONTREAL — Amid a worsening COVID-19 situation and with another region moving to the maximum alert level on Friday, Quebec's opposition parties called on the government to allow the province's public health director to be questioned over the pandemic.

The opposition demand for a hearing with Dr. Horacio Arruda came as it was announced that the eastern part of the Lower St. Lawrence region — including Rimouski and Matane — would be under red-zone restrictions as of Monday.

Dr. Sylvain Leduc, the regional health director for the region, said COVID-19 cases had jumped in the past week. He said more than 20 cases a day in the region of 200,000 people would be enough to trigger a red-zone designation, but it's recently been far beyond that, with a record 45 cases reported on Wednesday.

Leduc said community transmission is occurring in bars, restaurants, parties, workplaces and schools, contributing to 27 outbreaks. "When there is a transmission that is sustained in all environments, it always ends by reaching our most vulnerable people," he said. "Ultimately, it ends with deaths, but also hospitalizations."

It was because of pressure on the province's strained health-care network and rising COVID-19 infections that the government of Francois Legault decided Thursday to cancel a plan to permit holiday gatherings over four days at Christmas in red zones.

That reversal intensified Quebec's opposition parties' demands on Friday to hear from Arruda in a parliamentary committee before the legislature adjourns on Dec. 11. Arruda has said he's willing to appear, but no date had been set, and after next week the legislature does not sit again until February.

Opposition Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade also called for the government to announce a public inquiry into its handling of the pandemic.

"Meeting with Dr. Arruda is a first step, but it cannot be the only step. We need an independent inquiry," she told reporters Friday in Quebec City. "We are living through probably one of the most important crises in the history of Quebec, we need to make sure that there is a public inquiry to answer all kinds of questions."

As of Friday, the province had reported a total of 147,877 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 7,183 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. It has had more cases than any other province and accounts for more than half the total COVID-19 deaths nationally.

Meanwhile, Quebec reported 1,345 new COVID-19 cases and 28 additional deaths linked to the novel coronavirus Friday. Montreal recorded the most cases with 453, with the Quebec City, Eastern Townships, Lanaudiere and Monteregie regions all reporting more than 100 cases.

The province's Health Department said 24 more people were hospitalized with the virus for a total of 761, with two fewer cases in intensive care for 97.

A Quebec government-funded health institute reported Friday the number of COVID-19 cases among those 80 and older has been increasing over the past three weeks, with the virus increasingly striking those at a higher risk of hospitalization.

The Institut national d'excellence en sante et en services sociaux said in its latest weekly projections that COVID-19 hospital capacity should be sufficient in Montreal in the coming weeks as well as in Quebec as a whole. But it cautioned the situation remains tenuous in some outlying regions, due to COVID-19 outbreaks in elder care.

Overall, the number of new cases in Quebec last week, ending Nov. 29, was up 12 per cent compared to the previous week, with the jump concentrated largely in the greater Montreal area.

Health Minister Christian Dube said the latest institute forecast is a departure from relative stability in recent weeks. “In recent days we have seen worrying signs of the situation worsening, especially with regard to hospitalizations in certain regions," he said in a statement. 

"The decision we made to no longer allow Christmas gatherings in the red zone reflects our desire to take no risks, in support of our teams in the health and social services network."

Dube also issued a decree beefing up staffing for the upcoming COVID-19 immunization campaign by allowing students enrolled in health programs and other health-care professionals to get the necessary training to administer vaccines against influenza or COVID-19.

The health minister said the agreements with professional orders allows the province to add a few thousand people to administer doses.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 4, 2020.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press