Starting this weekend, the federal government says it will deploy about 125 members of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) who have health-care training to support workers in Quebec’s long-term care facilities reeling from COVID-19-related outbreaks, deaths and staff shortages.
“I want to thank Justin Trudeau for that,” Legault said in French during a daily press conference with Quebec officials.
The news comes one day after the prime minister and deputy prime minister confirmed Quebec had formally requested federal and military help in its nursing homes hard hit by the spread of the novel coronavirus.
It was an ask that Trudeau described as “unprecedented,” noting military help for provinces is typically deployed for emergencies like floods and forest fires.
The 125 military members will be sent in teams to Quebec’s long-term care facilities starting Saturday, according to a Friday news release from the Department of National Defence.
Those teams will include nursing officers, medical technicians and support personnel, the department said.
Ahead of that, the military is dispatching CAF personnel on Friday to gather information to help establish “the locations and employment protocols” for those teams, according to the defence department.
“Our Augmented Civilian Care teams are flexible, adaptable, and scalable, and I am confident their efforts will go a long way to help improve conditions in the facilities we are deployed to,” Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance said in the release.
Several experts on Friday welcomed Ottawa’s decision to answer Quebec’s call for military assistance.
“I think it’s excellent,” said Kerry Bowman, who teaches medical ethics and global health at the University of Toronto. “It might spook a lot of Canadians and Quebecers but I think it sends the right message as to how extreme this situation is and how great the urgency is to reach out and help people.
“My understanding is there’s a lot of high-qualified people within the Canadian Forces with a diversity of skills that includes health care and I think it’s a great idea.”
Andrew Leslie, a retired Canadian Forces lieutenant-general and former Liberal member of Parliament, said he thinks it’s a “worthwhile endeavour” having members of the military support “civilians who don’t have the capacity or who are exhausted on the front line.”
But he cautioned that it should be a “short-term” operation because the army doesn’t have infinite medical personnel and resources to spare.
Leslie, who served 35 years in the Armed Forces, suggested there might be roughly 3,000 members of the military with some type of medical training across the country, but likely less than a third are in a position to be deployed away from their units. That pool gets smaller when you filter for members who are French-speaking, he added.
“They’re not there to replace the long-term staff of the many, many, many facilities that exist all over Canada,” he said. “You’ve got to caution everybody else that that doesn’t mean that every province can automatically expect the same because the need might not be there.
Leslie noted he does have some personal experience with the challenges facing Quebec’s long-term care sector, saying a relative of his who lived in a Montreal nursing home recently died.
“The crisis is there,” he said. “A whole bunch of hard questions should be asked after the emergency is over as to how these conditions were allowed to evolve or devolve down to where they are now.”
In an interview with Global News on Thursday about what role the army could play in long-term care facilities, military researcher Dave Perry said he thought it would be “pretty extraordinary” to have military members sent in to work in those residences. But they could provide medical support “to a limited extent,” said Perry, who serves as vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
The Quebec government has been trying to slow the spread of COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — in dozens of seniors’ residences, where the situation is critical.
Legault on Friday admitted he should have raised the salaries of front-line workers in nursing homes earlier as the province’s coronavirus death toll and case numbers continue to rise.
“I take full responsibility,” he said. “We entered this crisis badly equipped and the situation deteriorated.”
As of Friday, there are more than 16,700 cases of the virus in Quebec and 688 deaths linked to COVID-19. More than 1,000 people have been hospitalized.
In addition to asking Ottawa for help, provincial officials have pleaded with Quebec’s doctors and health-care professionals to help staff affected long-term care facilities. Legault said he had “no other choice” than to ask medical specialists and family physicians for assistance.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland on Thursday described the challenges in Quebec’s long-term care facilities as an “urgent situation” and said that the federal government is committed to supporting the province.
In response to two separate requests for federal assistance, Ottawa has also sent about 160 Canadian Rangers in total to help out in two of Quebec’s northern, remote areas: Nunavik and Basse-Côte-Nord.
—With files from Kalina Laframboise