MONTREAL — Sunday shoppers streamed back into Quebec stores for the first time in three weeks as a measure meant to curb soaring COVID-19-related hospitalization rates in the province came to an end amid declining patient numbers.

The positive signs were not confined to the province either, as virus-related admissions either decreased or held steady in other jurisdictions such as Ontario and Nova Scotia.

Ontario reported a drop of 229 patients in hospitals with COVID-19, though officials noted that not all health-care facilities share data on weekends.

Quebec, meanwhile, said 12 fewer patients were hospitalized Sunday. The two long-standing virus hotspots, however, still had more than 7,000 hospitalizations between them as of Sunday.

The numbers came as most Quebec stores reopened their doors following a three-week ban on Sunday shopping imposed by the government in a bid to curb hospitalization rates that soared once the pandemic's Omicron-driven wave took hold. The province closed non-essential businesses for three Sundays starting Jan. 2, making exceptions only for pharmacies, convenience stores and gas stations.

The move — one of a suite of measures implemented to bring hospitalizations under control — appeared to be bearing fruit, as the number of patients in provincial facilities has declined for four days in a row.

Christophe Fiore, the co-owner of grocery store Fruiterie Roger in Montreal, shared mixed feelings about reopening on Sundays.

He said that while the provincial restriction helped to address a staffing shortage, it also produced a counter-effect by forcing more customers to do their shopping on Saturdays and Mondays.

"It's not a good solution when it comes to COVID," Fiore said. "It was not pleasant, Saturdays and Mondays became extremely busy and the rest of the week was quiet."

Signs of hope in #Ontario and #Quebec as #COVID begins to wane.

Fiore said reopening on Sundays is helping restore balance.

"We are already seeing it, yesterday and today were quieter," he said.

Louise Duflos, who works at one of Montreal's largest no-waste grocery stores, echoed Fiore's comments, adding the restriction came at the same time as most staff were struggling with COVID-19.

"When we were asked to shut doors on Sundays, there were more COVID cases so fewer people were able to work," Duflos said. "So it worked out well, less hours but also less staff."

Having Sundays back on her schedule will bring some welcome financial stability, she added.

"It's been complicated to deal with all the changes over the last weeks."

Quebec is also set to expand its vaccination passport program as of Monday, making it mandatory to show proof of immunization in order to enter a number of retail settings.

They include big-box and grocery stores with areas of 1,500 square metres or more. As of Jan. 18, proof of vaccination also became mandatory to enter the province's liquor and cannabis stores.

Vaccines and other protective measures were the focus of fresh comments from Canada's top doctor on Sunday.

Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam issued a statement saying vaccines and virus treatments are keeping Canadians better protected against the ongoing pandemic even as she predicted more difficult weeks ahead.

"Among adolescent and adult age groups, vaccine coverage with two or more doses ranges from 83 per cent to 96 per cent, with room for improvement particularly on booster dose coverage for adults, which ranges from 21 to 75 per cent," Tam said.

Health Canada data from early January show fully vaccinated cases were 80 per cent less likely to be hospitalized and 80 per cent less likely to die as a result of their illness.

While provinces continue to promote vaccination and booster shots, some recorded glimmers of improvement in their virus-related numbers on Sunday while others continued to post concerning statistics.

New Brunswick reported two people have died as a result of COVID-19 on Sunday, representing a drop from the six logged a day earlier, but the number of hospitalizations in the province remains high. Public health authorities said 126 people were hospitalized with COVID-19.

Quebec logged 33 new virus-related deaths on Sunday, down more than 50 per cent from the 68 recorded the day before. Ontario, meanwhile, recorded 57 new deaths, up 10 from the previous day.

Public health officials in Prince Edward Island recorded one death attributed to COVID-19, along with 209 new infections. That figure represents a decline from the seven-day average case count of 279.

No new deaths were reported in Nova Scotia, where virus-related hospitalizations held steady at 287 for the second day in a row.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 23, 2022.

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