MONTREAL -- Quebec eased up on COVID-19 restrictions this week -- right as it announced that more infectious variants of the virus have arrived.

That delicate balance was made obvious by the details Public Health Director Dr. Horacio Arruda announced Tuesday: the two first South African variant cases were both found in the remote Abitibi region, where rules are now some of the province's most relaxed.

Arruda said that two outbreaks in Abitibi, one tied to a fast-food restaurant and one tied to a party, gave the province the first indication the variant had arrived.

But Abitibi, about a seven-hour drive northwest of Montreal, went back into "orange zone" status as of Monday.

That means that groups of two adults plus kids may now dine indoors at restaurants, groups of up to eight can do outdoor activities together, and curfew has been pushed back to 9:30 p.m., among other new rules.

Montreal and several other regions remain in "red zone" status, with stricter restrictions.

While referring to the "outbreaks," Arruda said that the variant's spread in Abitibi has nonetheless been successfully stemmed.

"The two cases in the Abititi, the two cases of the South African [variant], did not keep transmitting in the Abitibi area, but we had to keep an eye on it," he said.

"We had to remain vigilant."

All the new variants of the virus have greater power to spread. "All evidence suggests that they're more infectious," one expert told CTV News this week.


Quebec's new updates on the variants come after a couple of weeks with little news.

Provincial authorities had previously announced there had been eight patients infected with COVID-19 variants in the province, all of them infected with the U.K. variant.

Five of those cases were an early cluster, all within one family, that was contained.

Now, two more variants have arrived, with three more people confirmed infected: the two who have the South African strain, and one person infected with a variant that's still under investigation to see exactly what it is, according to public health statistics published Tuesday. 

That brings the total number of variant-infected patients in Quebec so far to 11. 

Not all COVID-19 samples are tested to see if they're the old variant, or one of the new, more dangerous variants. But Quebec is also ramping up its ability to try to keep track of the variants, said Arruda.

To do that surveillance, a certain percentage of overall samples are randomly, or semi-randomly, selected to have their DNA sequenced, to see which variant of COVID-19 they are.

"We have increased, in Quebec, the capacity to eight per cent of the samples," said Arruda. Then "we will be reaching 10, we believe, then 15" per cent.

That's an achievement compared to the rest of North America, he said. Other Canadian provinces are testing about three per cent of samples to check for variants, while in the U.S. the average is about one per cent.

It should put Quebec in a good position to keep track, he said, especially because the samples are not taken completely at random and "we apply criteria with people who have come back from travelling abroad."

In addition to the three new known cases, there are undoubtedly other patients infected with variants who haven't yet been identified, said Arruda, as is always the case.

"There are always more cases than we can predict," he said, but to him, "the present numbers in Quebec are relatively low" when compared with other provinces with many more variant cases per capita, including Alberta and Ontario.


Authorities said in their daily briefing that in this new era, testing is key, and not just in terms of increased DNA sequencing of test samples to track the variants.

Premier François Legault also had a favour to ask: if you start showing signs of COVID-19, head to a testing centre without delay, he said in his daily briefing Tuesday.

"People, on average, wait over two days before they go get tested," said Legault, describing recent Quebec statistics.

"It's much too late," he said. "As soon as you have symptoms, you should go get tested. We have a lot of testing capacity, it doesn't take long, and it doesn't take long, either, to get the results." 

When asked about people feeling hesitant to get a test because they've broken public health rules, such as breaking curfew -- which carries a minimum $1,000 fine -- Health Minister Christian Dubé said people should feel secure that they will never be penalized for their infractions after disclosing them to a contact tracer.

"Perhaps there was a situation where they did not respect the measures," said Dube, but if that comes up in a contact-tracing call, "never are we going to give you tickets or consequences for that."

He also said the province is going to work at finding new ways to make people feel secure about what might happen if they test positive and need to self-isolate, another common fear.

"We have to offer to tell those people, do you need for someone to go see you, or to bring you food... are there services we can give you?" he said.

"We are going to [approach] people in a positive way, not a negative way."


Legault said that even with the new easing of rules, government is still concerned about what might happen over spring break, the first week of March, and that he'll make an announcement on that next week.

"Usually there's... a lot of people moving around during the spring break, even if people stay in Quebec," he said.

He said at another point that he believes many people from red zones are "looking at going to the orange zone."

The province wants to discourage extra travel or socializing over the break, and it's trying to design rules accordingly, he said.

"This is not the time to organize activities with other families," he said. "This is also not the time to ask people 65 and over to babysit the children."

The province is "not excluding... adding additional measures to avoid what happened over the holiday period," he said.