As COVID indicators trend upward in Quebec, experts decry lack of data

“The virus hasn’t moved on — so we’re going to get people still going to hospital, people being sick, and long COVID,” Dr. André Veillette said.

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Wastewater data for COVID-19 has been quietly trending upward since the end of August in some parts of Quebec, at a time when the attention of many is set on the coming provincial election.

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But even if there were no distractions, it would be difficult for Quebecers to grasp how present the virus is in their communities because of a lack of data that began when the province limited PCR testing to priority groups in early January, a decision many experts have decreed.

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Wastewater data can offer a glimpse into the situation in Quebec — it currently shows upward trends in Montreal, Laval, Trois-Rivières and Gatineau — but it is published belatedly on the Institut nationale de santé publique du Québec’s website, and, as with any method , it has its limits.

“The problem with wastewater data is we don’t get an individual level, we just get a community level,” said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre.

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“We’re in this nebulous situation where we don’t have data to be able to know what’s going on, and the only way we’ll know there’s a wave, therefore, is when our health-care system gets threatened again.”

On Friday, Quebec attributed another 10 deaths to COVID-19. Hospitalizations increased by 19 to 1,568, including four more patients in intensive care, for a total of 40.

“There are still a lot of people admitted to hospital, even though the difference has been, lately, in favor of people leaving the hospital, not coming in,” said Dr. André Veillette, an immunologist at the Montreal Clinical Research Institute. “But there’s still people coming into the hospital. … So, we may be seeing a trend up.”

With students back in school and the arrival of the colder season, experts are recommending for Quebecers to take the same precautions as those repeated since early in the pandemic: vaccination, masking in crowded areas, improving ventilation when possible, and using rapid tests before gatherings .

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“Those are still ways to prevent this, but you know, it looks like people have moved onto something else,” Veillette said. “But the virus hasn’t moved on — so we’re going to get people still going to hospital, people being sick, and long COVID, which I think is going to be a huge problem.”

Both Vinh and Veillette are part of a federal task force on Post-COVID-19 Condition, or long COVID. On Thursday, they took part in an online event during which testimonies of those who suffer from the condition were shared. It was one of a series of meetings on the subject that Vinh described as part of the federal government’s effort to legitimize the condition and learn how it is being treated elsewhere in the world.

“I can tell you that on this committee, we realize how big this problem will be,” Veillette said ahead of the event. “It will just get worse and worse, and it will have huge health impact, economy, social impact. We’re not set up to take care of these people. We’re going to need clinics, we’re going to need trained people to take care of them. We don’t have that. We don’t even have nurses now to staff hospitals, or doctors. … So at the same time as our health system is crumbling, we’re going to have this need for people to be taken care of and, of course, we need to discover how to treat that. But in the meantime, we also have to treat these people. And they will require attention. So that’s going to be a huge, huge, huge problem.”

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Meanwhile, Quebecers are left to rely on obscure data to manage their own risk of contracting COVID-19 as the virus continues to spread — in a province that provides citizens with access to tests for other infections.

“Why are we not offering a test to somebody who has symptoms that could be related to COVID? That makes no sense, right?” Vinh said. “It’s a bit weird that our handling of COVID is different from any other infection that we handle.”

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