No need to panic over Omicron, but now's the time to vaccinate kids, says Montreal public health director

Montreal is seeing a steady rise in cases, and while it's too early to know much about the Omicron variant, it's a good time to start taking precautions -- especially getting kids vaccinated, said the city's public health director.

"I think we have a vigilant approach with Omicron, but we are not at a stage where we have to panic," said Dr. Mylene Drouin in a press conference Wednesday.

Quebec as a whole saw a major spike in COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, jumping from around 800 to almost 1,200 new infections.

The recent rise in cases in the city has been steady but slow. Montreal is currently at the same level as it was at in mid-September of 2020, as that previous wave was gaining steam.

On the city's part, it's decided "the first strategy is prudence," Drouin said, which partly means getting ready to ramp up DNA sequencing of samples and monitoring suspected Omicron cases.

It also means making sure everyone else is preparing by moving up vaccination appointments or getting their kids' shots done quickly.

DON'T WAIT FOR IN-SCHOOL VACCINATIONS, CITY URGES

A full 14 per cent of Montreal children from five to 11 have already been vaccinated in less than a week, Drouin said. Another 16 per cent have appointments, meaning 30 per cent in total seem set to go.

However, getting the rest of the city's children immunized is very important, since the majority of new cases are among children, with most outbreaks at schools and daycares, she said.

She urged parents to take their kids to vaccination centres, if possible, rather than waiting for in-school vaccinations done by a visiting nurse. While some of those school visits have begun, some won't happen until Dec. 21.

"The sooner, the better," Drouin said. 

Getting some kids vaccinated now with their parents will also make the in-school campaigns faster and more efficient, with fewer kids still needing a shot at that point, said Drouin. That will mean nurses can move faster and visit more schools.

Kids' parents, people from their 30s to 50s, are another group with especially high infection rates, she said.

Public Health has a project right now to visit schools in low-vaccination areas and talk to parents in order to answer their questions.

It's been clear so far that a major factor in which kids and teenagers get vaccinated is whether their parents have gotten vaccinated, Drouin said. 

Certain areas of the city are still lagging in vaccination: Anjou, Saint-Leonard, Pointe-aux-Trembles, Saint-Michel and Cote-des-Neiges.

SINGLE CASE OF OMICRON UNDER STRICT ISOLATION

Montreal is home to the one person in Quebec with a case of the Omicron variant, Drouin said, but that case is under careful control, and all people suspected to have the Omicron variant will be kept in "strict isolation."

"The person is in quarantine and their family members are in isolation, so we're not expecing to have secondary infections," she said.

Montreal Public Health has some more precautions planned around Omicron, including applying stricter rules to the family contacts of suspected cases. Currently, if people have two shots of the vaccine, they're not required to stay in isolation. 

"We will isolate contacts even though they're double-vaccinated, and we'll do so until we have more information on this variant," she said.

The goal is to postpone the time when Omicron begins to circulate in the community.

Another precaution is a process already underway to speed up "criblage" or DNA pre-screening for test samples of people arriving from certain countries, said Drouin.

THINKING AHEAD TO HOSPITAL CAPACITY

There are also preparations for a major wave of the virus, just in case.

Montreal is reserving 500 hospital beds for COVID-19 in case of an Omicron-fuelled wave. Spread across all hospitals, that won't reduce the city's capacity to treat non-COVID cases, Drouin said.

Health staff are also relying on the public to act quickly when they have health problems and take care of themselves.

"As always, staffing is a big worry," said Sonia Bélanger, the director of the Central-South health district.

Right now, though there are just 100 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Montreal, the onset of winter has been filling up capacity in other ways. The city's emergency rooms are all at 100 or 125 per cent occupancy, she said.

"It's very important to go to clinics," family doctors or other primary care settings at the first signs of illness, she said, to avoid ending up needing a visit to the emergency room.

Newsletters

Breaking News alerts, info on contests, and special offers from partners