Is now the appropriate time to ease COVID-19 measures?

The government’s decision to ease sanitary measures may be a relief for certain businesses, however some experts believe that it can only be effectively done if properly safeguarded

Quebec’s Interim Public Health Director Dr. Luc Boileau announced in a press conference last week the easing of certain COVID-19 measures. As of March 12, Quebecers will no longer need to present their vaccination passport in public venues such as restaurants and bars, and businesses will be able to operate at 100 per cent capacity. By mid-April, the province intends to lift mask mandates, excluding on public transport, where mandates will remain in place until May.  

Though Boileau and the Quebec government regard mask measures as an effective one, they cannot continue to oblige it. As the government continues to return to normalcy, Boileau said in his March 3 press conference that masks will become a personal choice. In last week’s press conference, Boileau lifted more health measures. For example, if asymptomatic, people will no longer need to self-isolate for five days if in contact with someone that has tested positive for COVID-19.

Though the government is adamant about continuing to lift sanitary COVID-19 measures, many are still questioning whether now is the best time to ease all restrictions. The virus’ prevalence has prompted experts to envision potential risks that could emerge from these actions later down the line.

Most businesses optimistic in return

For many businesses heavily impacted by COVID-19 regulations, this is a breath of relief. The hardest hit businesses, like restaurants and bars, are grateful that they can now return to serving customers free of added restrictions and measures imposed upon their business.

Martin Vézina, vice president of governmental and public affairs for Association Restauration Quebec (ARQ) claimed that many restaurants feel reassured with the easing of sanitary measures. “This is good news for us because it comes down to a certain sense of normalcy that we haven’t seen since March 2020. We’re looking forward to opening at full capacity.”

 Restaurants that opened amid the pandemic like Bistro La Franquette are cautiously optimistic about easing measures. Co-owner Renée Deschenes has experienced many changes in health measures over the course of her restaurant’s existence, and feels like the added confusion from constant modifications has planted seeds of uncertainty and confusion among patrons entering her establishment.

 “It’s nice and all that we are able to open up at 100 per cent capacity, but the after-effects of people being in lockdown, people having a curfew, and the general public not really knowing what the rules are and aren’t, those effects are definitely felt in the restaurant,” said Deschenes.

 Experts are not fully convinced that now is the time to lift measures

Assistant professor at the McGill University Department of Medicine and infectious disease specialist Dr. Matthew Oughton is more cautious, and believes that though COVID-19 cases are low for now, the future of living with the virus can’t be accurately predicted. According to Oughton, continuing vaccine education, heavier viral monitoring, improving indoor air quality, and individual optimal vaccine protection are the four items that should be of primary concern while measures are eased. 

Given how the virus has surprised many over the past two years, especially amid the emergence of variants with increased transmissibility like Omicron and BA.2, lifting sanitary measures may eventually lead to re-imposed measures on public spaces and venues. “All of a sudden within about a month or so it (Omicron) exploded in so many different parts of the world. So, could we see that same process again, given all of the surprises that COVID-19 has dealt us over the past two years, we should expect to be surprised.”

 Despite the difficulty of accurately predicting if or when the next wave will hit, Oughton believes that if it does, it will be difficult for both the government and public health authorities to convince the public to respect re-implemented COVID-19 measures. “After two years, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people are very tired of dealing with this. […] Unfortunately, just because we are tired of the virus, that doesn’t mean the inverse, that the virus is tired of us.”

 Despite the decline in cases, Oughton stated that most of Quebec’s population is not optimally protected from COVID-19. “If you look at the numbers, we’re about 91 per cent of people with at least one dose, we are at something like 87 per cent of the population with two doses, but we’re just only barely above 50 per cent of the population having three doses.”

 Peter Darlington, associate professor in the Department of Health, Kinesiology, and Applied Physiology at Concordia University explained that a virus’s lifespan ultimately depends upon the number of people it can infect. “How contagious it is would have an impact, because the virus essentially wants to be in as many people as possible. If you look at Ebola for example, the Ebola virus is not as transmissible because it has to travel through fluid, it’s not like an aerosol.” Darlington added that, the more variants like BA.2 are transmitted, there’s a greater possibility of other mutations occurring.  

 “Transmissibility is what derives its effects across a large population,” Oughton said. “Contagious diseases require close contact often for transmission so the more opportunities there are, the more you’re going to see some of these infections start to come back.”

 The data on the presence of the BA.2 variant in areas like Montreal is still limited, but the lack of sufficient testing has prompted the Quebec government to re-monitor the virus through wastewater testing, a measure that experts like Oughton have been waiting for. 

“I think it’s a brilliant measure and I’ve been arguing for this for a long time. By re-instituting our wastewater screening, we will have an early indicator that on a population level gives you a reasonable measure of the amount of disease activity.”

 Safeguards like providing third doses to the near 50 per cent of Quebecers who have not yet received it, educating the public regarding the continued presence of the virus, and ensuring proper air quality in higher transmission zones are all effective measures to lessen the chances of transmission and re-imposed sanitary restrictions.


Community groups demand release of migrant detainees following a COVID-19 outbreak at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre

One of the migrants at the centre has begun a hunger strike to protest inadequate health measures

Multiple migrant detainees at the Immigration Holding Centre (IHC) in Laval have contracted COVID-19, spurring community groups to call on the immediate release of all detainees for the migrants’ safety.

Due to the outbreak, one of the migrants who tested positive for COVID-19 began a hunger strike on Feb. 15 to protest against the conditions at the centre, according to Solidarity Across Borders (SAB), a community group in contact with multiple detainees at the centre.

Unsanitary conditions, inadequate COVID-19 protocol, and refusal to give proper healthcare to detainees — these are some of the allegations weighed against the IHC by SAB and one of the detainees, Marlon, who used a pseudonym to protect his identity.

While the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) spokesperson Rebecca Purdy said detainees who have tested positive are being held in solitary confinement, SAB member of the detention committee Simone Lucas claims all detainees on the men’s side are being held in solitary as a containment measure.

SAB receives all of their information through phone calls with detainees who are in isolation and cannot properly communicate with one another, which Lucas said is the reason why some of their figures are different from the CBSA. In a press release, SAB claimed four positive COVID-19 cases at the centre, while the CBSA claimed three cases since Feb. 15. To date, there are 15 migrants held in the Laval IHC, according to the CBSA.

Back in the spring of 2020, detainees organized a group hunger strike during the first wave of the pandemic, to protest being held in a closed environment, which made them more susceptible to contracting the virus. Some migrants were released following the eight-day hunger strike, and a media campaign by SAB.

“If the CBSA was able to release detainees in the spring we don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t be allowed to release detainees this time around,” said Tanya Rowell Katzemba, a member of the detention committee at SAB.

During the first wave of the pandemic, the only confirmed COVID-19 case at the centre was a security guard. Rowell Katzemba thinks the situation now, with multiple migrants getting sick, means there is an even greater risk to their safety and wellbeing.

The higher risk of exposure to the virus comes from the staff who work at the centre, who regularly come and go, while migrants are detained in closed environments, according to the press release by SAB. Marlon agrees, and he says the situation at the centre is dire.

“In my experience, the worst thing that has happened to me in my life is to have fallen sick with COVID-19,” said Marlon in an interview with The Concordian. He said the precautions and care he has received at the Laval IHC are insufficient.

Marlon said that after testing positive, he was moved to a smaller room to quarantine, where the walls appeared to have spit spread on them, the bed was dirty, and the curtains were stained with blood. He successfully demanded to be moved, saying the centre’s cleaning measures were inadequate.

According to Marlon, deep cleaning at the centre amounts to surfaces being wiped down with a rag, with high-traffic touchable services like vending machines and water foundations rarely being cleaned. In the washroom detainees use, blood is smeared on the door from the inside, and mold grows on the shower curtains.

Marlon continued to state that multiple guards have taken off their masks while working at the centre, sometimes coughing and sneezing without a face covering. Staff do not socially distance, and instead have various points of contact between each other throughout their work day and during breaks, for example,  Marlon said he witnessed guards sharing cigarette lighters.

Personnel at the centre work in eight hour shifts, with around 12 to 20 employees coming and going from the IHC at a time, said Marlon. In the first week of February, he noticed one of the guards in the shared communal space exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms; they were coughing, had dark bags under their eyes, and appeared to have trouble breathing. 

Less than two weeks later, Marlon also tested positive for COVID-19, during which time he was scheduled to be deported from Canada. Due to his positive result, his deportation was postponed, conditional on a negative test result for COVID-19. In Canada, deportations resumed on Nov. 30, 2020, after having been paused due to the pandemic in March 2020.

The CBSA did not respond to questions regarding whether any personnel at the centre had contracted COVID-19.

The CBSA released a statement pertaining to cleaning measures at the centre.

“Since February 2020, several additional measures have been taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the Laval IHC. These have been taken in response to directives put forward by health authorities and are reviewed several times a week as the situation continues to evolve.”

One of these measures was also to stop all visitations from the public. Marlon has not seen his wife and son who live in Montreal and whose refugee applications have been approved, since he was detained for lack of identification papers on Nov. 16, 2020.

At the centre, Marlon finds it ironic the guards are “treating them like lepers and keeping their distance,” while it was those very personnel who brought COVID-19 into the detention centre. While some of his symptoms have improved, Marlon said he has many headaches, and can only sleep facing up, for three hours at night.

Marlon has refused to be tested for COVID-19, saying if he tests negative, they will immediately deport him. Instead, he wants to make sure COVID-19 has left no long-lasting health issues, and has asked for a medical evaluation.

Since he became sick at the centre, he feels it is the responsibility of the health workers there to care for him.

“They don’t care how my body is doing or the state of my lungs,” he said. ”They just want me out of the way.”

While Montreal opened their first post-COVID-19 clinic earlier this month, Marlon said detainees at the holding centre are being denied follow-up care. He said he would not refuse deportation, but wants to know he has fully recovered from COVID-19, citing that this is now a human rights demand in the context of the pandemic.

He feels since the shelter cannot treat detainees humanely, it should be closed down. In the meantime, SAB will continue to pressure the government to release detainees at the Laval IHC.

“Treat us like humans,” said Marlon.


Translation for the interview with Marlon provided by SAB member Alonso Gamarra.

Graphic by @the.beta.lab

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