Coronavirus in Quebec: a look back on a year like no other

As the curtains close on 2020, Quebecers are reeling from a deadly year.

But, as vaccine campaigns roll out around the world, the question remains: ‘How did we do?’

Dr. Brian Ward, Infectious diseases specialist with the MUHC can help find an answer to that question.

In the early months of 2020, the news of the novel coronavirus’s emergence overseas was disturbing, yet still distant from Quebec. That changed fast when the province’s first case was discovered in late February. 

Within weeks, COVID-19 was spreading fast. Ward says decisions were made to protect the most vulnerable and avoid panic, as people around the world adjusted to isolation and mask wearing. 

“The initial advice about masks was heavily influenced by the desire to make sure the high-quality masks went into the hospitals and long-term care facilities as opposed to people's laundry cabinets” he said.

The fear was that if masks were mandatory for the general population, people would stockpile them, like they did with groceries and toilet paper. Officials worried supplies would become unavailable for those who needed them the most. 

Then came the issue of setting up COVID-19 testing centres, which were needed fast. 

“Governments everywhere were scrambling to find those materials in order to do the testing,” said Ward. 

“We as academics at McGill received messages from some of the diagnostic labs saying ‘do any of you have extra tubes of this enzyme and that reagent?’ There were enormous shortages all around the world” 

Looking back at 2020, Ward says that those making the decisions did the best they could.

“It's very easy to criticize these decisions but it's awfully hard to make them,” he said. “In general, the government and public health officials in Canada have acted very well.”

Vaccines, he added, were developed fast.

“Enormous resources have been put into the effort to develop these vaccines by the companies,” he said. “There have also been enormous resources made available to the companies by the governments.” 

Like the flu shot that we need every year, he says, the COVID-19 vaccine will likely be an annual injection. 

“It's already mutating… The virus that is circulating so actively in north America and in Europe is not the same virus that came out of China.” 

The Pfizer vaccine requires extremely cold temperatures to store, making it difficult to deploy in developing countries. Ward says it’s extremely important that all countries have access to immunization, not just the wealthy ones. 

Vaccinating the whole world is no small feat. Ward says it may take years to reach global herd immunity.

“A billion doses sounds like a huge amount but we need 2 doses to protect one person. so even if you produce a billion doses, you only protect potentially 500-million people.”

He said it’s not just a slogan, it’s science.

“This isn't a race with one winner and many losers,” said Ward. “But I think by 2021, we'll be enormously better.” 

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