MONTREAL -- Since the pandemic began, Quebec has tallied up more than 11,300 deaths linked to COVID-19.

That means that, out of a total population of about 8.5 million, roughly one in 753 Quebecers have lost their lives after contracting the virus.

For the country as a whole, with its total of over 27,600 deaths, the per-capita death rate from COVID-19 is much lower—one in 1,388 Canadians.

These numbers “hit a little hard,” but they’re also not surprising, says virology expert Benoit Barbeau.

“The statistics mainly show [Quebec’s] first encounter with the virus and our first failures, which demonstrated that on many levels, we were ill-prepared to protect ourselves well, to identify and monitor this kind of respiratory virus that is transmitted very effectively,” said the professor, who teaches in the department of biological sciences at the Université du Québec à Montreal [UQAM].

One of those failures that’s still tipping Quebec’s balance sheet was that of public long-term care homes and private seniors' residences.

The first wave was particularly devastating because of the multiple outbreaks in these establishments, leading to a large portion of the province’s deaths, said Dr. Gaston De Serres.

“And this was subsequently corrected,” says the doctor and epidemiologist based at Quebec’s provincial institute of public health, the INSPQ.

“There were still outbreaks, but never of the same magnitude and the same frequency as at the start of the pandemic.”

Barbeau said it’s important to remember that in the spring of 2020, Montreal was the epicentre of the pandemic in Canada, with the virus making a massive entrance and possibly explaining the higher overall death rate per capita in Quebec.

The two experts also noted that there were certain shortcomings in management and preparation during the first months of the health crisis: the absence of an emergency committee, an insufficient amount of protective equipment, a less flexible health system and a lack of knowledge about how the virus was transmitted.

“We had a certain exaggerated confidence in our ability because we’re in a G7 country with exemplary medical knowledge and infrastructures that could respond very quickly,” said Barbeau, noting that other countries saw the same shortcomings.

“We realized that a virus can, in a few moments, show you how many flaws you have in your system.”

He said that Quebec, however, learned from these errors and then adopted more stringent health measures, allowing it to navigate the third wave better than other provinces.

ONE IN 500 AMERICANS DEAD

Among our neighbours to the south, the number of deaths per capita is even more marked.

One in 500 Americans has died from the coronavirus now that the country has surpassed 663,000 deaths, the Washington Post recently reported.

When compared to the number of reported cases of COVID-19, the U.S. death rate is similar to Canada’s. Of 42 million infections so far in the United States, there has been one death per 62 reported cases. Canada, with its 1.6 million infections, has seen one death for 60 reported cases, said De Serres.

“But since the United States has had so much more COVID than Canada, obviously the proportion of Americans who have been affected and the number of deaths per capita are much higher than we’ve had,” he explained.

The United States has been hit by “a tsunami,” says Barbeau, especially because of political polarization surrounding public health issues and less following of health measures in some states.

“It was a big, big wave, that faded but suddenly is resuming because it’s the unvaccinated people who are getting infected the most,” he said.

BETTER CONTROL OF VIRAL SPREAD NOW

Being now much better equipped to face the virus, it would be “very unlikely” that Quebec would again experience death rates similar to those of the first and second waves, said De Serres.

Vaccination coverage has now reached more than 95 per cent of the most vulnerable people in the province, and health rules still in place are allowing Quebec to fare better, he said.

“Our ability to prevent fatalities is much better,” De Serres said.

“Care has improved [and] there are things we now know about how to treat people who have serious COVID that leads to hospitalization. So there have been decreases in case fatality rates.”

However, some unknowns remain about the virus’s mutations, said Barbeau. He said there are many scenarios when it comes to future variants.

“At the moment, we are seeing that the changes [in DNA] are relatively at the same places on the spike, which can give us some comfort that there may be some limits to what the virus can do, he said.

“But we’re at the beginning of seeing what the virus can manage among a highly vaccinated population.”

On Saturday, Santé-Québec reported five new deaths linked to COVID-19, bringing the death toll to 11,354.

Of the 31 people admitted to hospital, 25 were not fully vaccinated. Neither were the six people newly admitted to intensive care.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Sept. 25, 2021.