Graham Hughes / AP
MONTREAL, Quebec (AP) – Quebec carried out the first of three planned non-essential retail store closures on Sunday as the provincial government tried to curb a new wave of COVID-19 driven by the highly infectious variant of Omicron.
Hospitals and healthcare resources in Quebec and in Canada’s remote northern communities are also under extreme strain as the number of cases explodes.
Quebec Premier François Legault announced last week that most stores in the province would be closed for the next three Sundays, with the exception of pharmacies, convenience stores and gas stations.
Charles Milliard, president of the Federation of Quebec Chambers of Commerce, urged the government to lift the measures as soon as possible.
“The last thing businesses need in these tough times are additional restrictions,” Milliard said in a statement. “We need to give the choice to businesses to open or close when it is most convenient for them, their employees and their customers.
The closures came as Quebec reported 15,845 new cases of COVID-19, as well as 13 additional deaths linked to the virus.
The health ministry said the number of hospitalizations related to the disease increased by 70 to 1,231. It said 162 people are in intensive care, an increase of nine.
Quebec’s main hospital network has announced that it will postpone half of its surgeries and medical appointments from Wednesday due to the increase in the number of COVID patients.
Martin Beaumont, president and CEO of the CHU de Québec-Université Laval, told a press conference that up to 10,000 medical appointments could be delayed, allowing around 50 nurses to also be redirected to the pandemic service.
The hospital network says 783 healthcare workers are isolated, in addition to the 600 nurses already absent from the workforce before the fifth wave of the pandemic.
The tension caused by the growing number of cases is exacerbated in remote communities where health care is already limited.
Bearskin Lake First Nation, a community accessible only by air in northern Ontario, declared a state of emergency on December 30 when 43 residents tested positive for the virus. As of Sunday, 169 people had confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, more than 40% of the total population.
“This is a crisis,” Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Derek Fox said in an interview.
Bearskin Lake does not have a hospital and is generally served by a nursing station with two nurses. An emergency evacuation would take more than three hours for a plane to enter and exit Sioux Lookout or Thunder Bay, and only if time permits.
A federal rapid response team consisting of three primary care nurses, a paramedic and two environmental health workers landed in Bearskin Lake on December 30, bringing more testing capacity with them. Two public health nurses were also dispatched by the Sioux Lookout First Nations Health Authority.
Outbreaks in remote communities also affect Nunavut, northern Quebec and Labrador.
Nunavut confirmed 22 more cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, bringing the total to 196 in just 10 days.
Nunavut discourages all non-essential travel within the territory and has prohibited non-essential travel to and from several communities, including Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Arviat, Igloolik and Pangnirtung.
Travel bans are also in place in Nunavik in northern Quebec until mid-January, with only critical or essential trips authorized inside or outside the 14 villages in the region.