MONTREAL -- Nearly a year after Quebec placed its largest cities under a partial lockdown in an effort to slow the rise of COVID-19 infections, experts say that this fall, there is reason for optimism.

On Sept. 28, 2020, Premier Francois Legault announced that starting Oct. 1, much of the province's population would be living under the highest alert level for 28 days. The restrictions would end up lasting much longer, with restaurants in Montreal not able to reopen their dining rooms until June.

Today, there are signs the province may have passed the peak of the pandemic's fourth wave, as the number of daily new COVID-19 cases declines.

On Monday, the Health Department reported 519 new cases of COVID-19, the lowest number of new daily cases in nearly three weeks and well below the average of 680 new daily cases reported over the previous seven days.

The second wave of the pandemic began in late September 2020, before peaking in January. But the fourth wave began earlier in the year and may have now peaked, said Dr. Donald Sheppard, the director of the McGill interdisciplinary initiative in infection and immunity.

"There's optimistic signs, when you look at the numbers, that we're at the peak, that we flattened the curve, if you will, this time with vaccines, instead of with public health measures," Sheppard said in an interview Monday.

More than 85 per cent of Quebecers 12 and older are considered fully vaccinated, according to the province's public health institute.

During the second wave, the number of new daily cases in Quebec peaked at more than 3,000 in January. Since the number of new cases began to rise again this summer, they have stayed below 900 a day, according to Health Department data.

On Monday, the Health Department said the number of COVID-19-related hospitalizations had risen by two, to 299, and 95 people were in intensive care, a rise of five from the day before.

Sheppard said Quebec's hospitalization numbers are in line with expectations: vaccination has resulted in fewer new cases and a lower percentage of those cases leading to hospitalization. He added, however, that the percentage of those hospitalizations requiring intensive care is higher, because the Delta variant is more virulent.

While Sheppard said he's optimistic, he said he is also concerned the level of immunity provided by COVID-19 vaccines may wane over time.

Studies in Israel have shown a significant decline in immunity after six months. But because Quebec waited longer to give people their second dose of vaccine, residents may have a higher level of immunity than those in Israel who received their second dose after 21 days.

As long as third doses are distributed quickly if people are facing waning immunity, and barring the emergence of a "catastrophic" new variant, Sheppard said he thinks there won't be a need for lockdowns this winter.

"If we continue to deal with what we're seeing now, then we should be able to avoid lockdowns in the winter," he said. "We will see cases, absolutely. We may even see what we're seeing now, which is an increase in hospitalizations to a number that is uncomfortable but manageable, that doesn't get to that level of disruption of the health-care system that justifies disrupting society."

Dr. Catherine Hankins, co-chair of Canada's COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, said that while the situation is different than it was a year ago, it might be too early to say that Quebec has passed the peak of the fourth wave.

"I think we need to give ourselves a little bit more time to see how this is going," she said in an interview Monday. "It's looking good, but we've just started getting back into congregate settings, we haven't dealt with a lot of ventilation issues. I think it's premature to call the fourth wave beat."

Hankins said she doesn't expect there will be another lockdown, because of the provincial government's mask mandates and vaccine passports, which she said will help prevent superspreader events. People working from home in the winter will also help, she added.

"I think everybody wants to avoid a lockdown," Hankins said. "We know what the impact has been on the mental health and well-being of our children, our adolescents and our adults, right throughout the whole population; we do not want to go back there."

Her fear, though, is that the virus will continue spreading in other parts of the world that have lower vaccination rates, leading to the emergence of new variants.

"We're not out of this one yet," she said. "We're not at the endgame yet."

 

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2021.