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Canada Lockdown Reimposes Measures In Preparation For Hospital Influx

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Canadian province of Quebec will impose an 8 p.m. curfew starting Saturday and other lockdown measures as experts project hospital ICUs could become overwhelmed within weeks. Quebec's Premier Francois Legault this week announced what he called a shock treatment for the province of 8.5 million people.

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FRANCOIS LEGAULT: I know those measures are tough for our mental health, but we have to balance that with the situation in our hospitals. The situation is very serious.

MARTIN: Reporter Emma Jacobs has more.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I want to test.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, you need to wait.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: People arrived steadily to the COVID testing site in the parking lot of Jewish General Hospital in Montreal one afternoon this week. Waiting in line, Joffrey Bienvenue said he'd learned his brother had tested positive.

JOFFREY BIENVENUE: And he dropped some boxes at my place, and he just called this morning to say he got it.

JACOBS: He and his teenage son and his wife, Kim Snabl, say they're not surprised by the rise in cases, particularly since the news of successful vaccines.

BIENVENUE: I think a lot of people just said, oh, let's put down our guards and...

KIM SNABL: Yeah, you know? And then people going on vacation. That was - that's smart.

JACOBS: The family is called up a metal ramp to the testing trailer. After a consultation at the door, they're told to come back later in the week.

SNABL: We have to wait six days.

JACOBS: Enough time after exposure for a test to show whether or not they got infected. That delay from exposure to infection and sometimes hospitalization is why doctors here say hospitals haven't seen the worst yet, including from gatherings over the holidays against the province's rules. Matthew Oughton is a physician at Jewish General.

MATTHEW OUGHTON: Are we bursting at the seams yet? No. Although, if you look at all of the recent trends, these are really going off the rails.

JACOBS: The head of the province's Institute for Excellence in Health Care, Luc Boileau, says more doctors and nurses are out sick or in quarantine than during the spring wave. He forecasts greater Montreal hospitals could exhaust the beds allocated for COVID patients within two weeks and be forced to cancel non-COVID procedures once again.

LUC BOILEAU: We're not facing that threat right now, but it can be so in the near future if nothing is done.

JACOBS: Hospitalizations have approached critical levels in other provinces, including Alberta and Ontario. Meanwhile, more than a dozen local and federal politicians from across the country are under scrutiny over international travel, including to warm weather destinations over the holidays. They include members of the party of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who spoke to reporters in front of his home on Tuesday.

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PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: All Canadians were so disappointed to see so many examples of folks who should have known better doing things that put us all at risk.

JACOBS: The government will now require a negative COVID-19 test to board flights into the country. However, most cases here aren't linked to international travel but to community spread, which is why Quebec is rolling out some of its strictest rules yet, says Joanne Liu, former president of Doctors Without Borders and a children's emergency physician in Montreal.

JOANNE LIU: We see a trend that is going full speed into driving into the wall, and we're trying to put all the brakes that we can to avoid a collision.

JACOBS: The other tool Canada has, she says, is to ramp up vaccination as much as possible. Canada has begun administering doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Montreal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARVO TO ME'S "MND WRKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.