Montreal is once again the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic in Quebec, Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante said Wednesday as the city's hospital network scrambled to open more beds for a rising number of patients.

The situation in hospitals is worrying, Plante told a news conference. Health officials said 744 of the Montreal region’s 1,000 COVID-dedicated hospital beds were already in use. Of those, 117 beds were being used by patients in intensive care.

"I wish we had better news, because once again Montreal is the epicentre of the pandemic, and the situation in hospitals is very, very difficult," Plante said.

The number of daily COVID-19 infections in Quebec crept back above the 2,000 mark on Wednesday as the province reported 2,071 new cases and 35 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. The Health Department said hospitalizations had risen by 19 in the previous 24 hours, to 1,516, and 229 people were intensive care, an increase of eight.

Health officials have been warning that the province's hospitals could be overwhelmed in the coming weeks and have raised the prospect that hospitals might need to invoke a protocol that determines which patients are admitted to intensive care units.

Sonia Belanger, the head of a health agency for the southern part of Montreal, said four hospitals planned to add up to 310 regular hospital beds for COVID-19 patients and another 43 intensive care beds.

Doctors in her network, she said, have begun training for what she described as the "catastrophic scenario" of having to implement the protocol. "We are preparing, but we will do everything in our power to keep providing care to the Montreal population," she said.

Because of a constant rise in hospitalizations in recent weeks, she said she has had to transfer resources to COVID-19 patients, resulting in cancellations of surgeries and a growing wait list for non-COVID-related services. About 48,000 people are waiting for surgery in the Montreal network, she said.

On a more positive note, Belanger said the city was preparing to cross an important milestone in the vaccination campaign: all of the residents, staff and care personnel in the city's long-term care homes should receive a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by next week, she said.

The province announced Wednesday that it had passed the mark of 100,000 people vaccinated after administering another 7,855 doses.

Health workers will also begin vaccinating members of Montreal's homeless community this week. The city's public health director, Dr. Mylene Drouin, said there are eight active outbreaks affecting about 170 homeless people and those who work with them.

"These are outbreaks that are difficult to control because we have a lot of mobility in this community," Drouin said.

Plante said more beds were being added to the shelter system to ensure people have a place to sleep while an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew is in effect, and more resources would be directed to help community organizations who are struggling to cope with the increased demand.

Drouin said the COVID-19 situation in the city had worsened in the last few weeks before improving slightly in recent days.

The city reported 727 new cases on Wednesday, compared to 1,000 or more in early January, but Drouin said the decline could be due to reduced testing.

She said the majority of people who are catching COVID-19 are getting it in a social context, from household members, family and close friends. She said cases peaked in early January, suggesting people were disregarding public health guidelines and meeting for small get-togethers over the holidays.

Drouin said people with mild flu-like symptoms are going to work and waiting several days on average to get tested. She asked people who feel even slightly ill to stay home from work and get tested as quickly as possible.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2021.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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