MONTREAL — Quebec will lift its COVID-19 state of emergency once children aged five through 11 are vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, Premier François Legault said Tuesday.
The premier said he expects that to happen in early 2022, though he acknowledged the situation could change.
"Since the beginning of the pandemic, the government has been obliged to use the health emergency to put in place exceptional orders ... to protect the public," Legault said in a speech reopening the province's legislature after a prorogation. "I am announcing that we will lift the health emergency after the vaccination of children aged five to 11. We are never safe from surprises with the pandemic, but if all goes well, this vaccination will be finished at the start of 2022."
Legault had previously been vague about when he planned to lift the public health emergency that was first declared in March 2020 and has been renewed every 10 days since.
That declaration under Quebec’s Public Health Act gives the government broad powers, including the ability to close places of assembly, limit travel, enter into contracts and “order any other measure necessary to protect the health of the population.”
Opposition parties and civil liberties groups have criticized the continued state of emergency, saying there needs to be more debate about what specific emergency powers are still needed to fight the pandemic.
The Quebec government has used those powers, at various times, to shut businesses and schools, introduce a curfew and suspend parts of its collective agreements with health-care unions. More recently, they were used to create a vaccine passport system.
Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist at the McGill University Health Centre, said the vaccination of children will make a "huge dent" in COVID-19 transmission.
"We now have clear data," Vinh said in an interview Tuesday, "that children are definitely vectors of community transmission." Vaccinating those aged five to 11 will protect them from rare cases of severe illness as well as decrease transmission, he said.
"There's more and more compelling data that vaccination, at least in those over 12 years of age, does decrease transmission, it decreases the amount of virus you shed, it decreases the period of contagiousness," Vinh said.
Earlier Tuesday, Quebec reported 342 new cases of COVID-19, the lowest number of new daily cases reported in the province since mid-August.
Vinh said that while a single day's number of new cases doesn't mean much, the seven-day average of new cases in the province has been trending down.
"Our vaccination rates are among the best in the country — I mean we still have room for improvement — but let's look at it half full. Our vaccination rates are excellent," he said, adding that Quebec has also done a good job with non-vaccination interventions, such as implementing masking requirements and limiting social gatherings.
But Vinh warns people shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security, particularly in more affected parts of the province.
Quebec's public health institute said Tuesday 90.2 per cent of residents 12 and over have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 87.2 per cent are considered adequately vaccinated.
The Health Department said there had been four additional deaths linked to the novel coronavirus. It said the number of hospitalizations declined by six, to 297, and 75 people are in intensive care, a decline of two.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 19, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press