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Quebec’s COVID-19 surge puts pressure on hospitals as some experts call for temporary lockdown

Click to play video 'Hospital overcrowding, staff shortages plaguing some Montreal-area hospitals' Hospital overcrowding, staff shortages plaguing some Montreal-area hospitals
WATCH: As the cases of COVID-19 continue to soar, so do overcrowding problems in hospitals. The Lakeshore General Hospital is asking patients to avoid its emergency room if possible. As Global’s Tim Sargeant reports, staff shortages are adding unsustainable pressure to the health-care system – Dec 7, 2020

Hospitals in Quebec are under pressure as some are forced to postpone operations and emergency rooms deal with overcrowding as novel coronavirus cases and hospitalizations climb across the province.

“We are cancelling quite a big number of appointments and surgeries,” Health Minister Christian Dubé said Monday. “It’s unfortunate but it’s to be able to take care of those COVID patients.”

Quebec topped 800 hospitalizations linked to COVID-19 on Monday, with more than 40 new patients being treated. It is the largest number of patients in provincial hospitals since the first wave of the health crisis.

“This is the result of what we’ve seen in the last two weeks,” Dubé said, referring to a spike in new infections.

In Montreal’s West Island, patients are being asked to avoid the Lakeshore General Hospital’s emergency room until further notice.

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The CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, the regional health authority, said in a statement Sunday it was dealing with an ER at 132 per cent capacity. There also outbreaks of COVID-19 on some of its units and staff shortages at the hospital, according to the regional health authority.

“Although the outbreaks are under control, measures must be taken to reduce the pressure on the emergency room and clinical teams,” the CIUSSS said.

READ MORE: Montreal’s Trudeau airport to offer rapid COVID-19 tests as part of pilot project

The situation at the Lakeshore General Hospital is “worrying” and requires action, according to the health authority’s CEO.

“While we have been facing the impacts of the second wave of the pandemic for several weeks now, we must do everything to continue to provide quality care to our users,” Lynne McVey said in a statement.

The West Island nurses’ union warns the situation over the weekend was “unsafe” at the hospital but says it has since stabilized.

Elizabeth Rich, who works with the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec, said the Lakeshore General Hospital was dealing with 53 patients on stretchers in the ER on Saturday evening — when the capacity is 31.

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“The employer moved and called managers to come to work,” she said.

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Read more: Lakeshore General Hospital’s emergency department in ‘critical’ condition, union says

In the meantime, the CIUSSS is asking patients who are seeking emergency care to go to other hospitals. People who need minor medical help can visit a medical clinic, contact their family doctor or contact the Info-Santé 811 line for any questions, the regional health authority said.

Those who have an appointment at the Lakeshore are still encouraged to go to their appointments or to call their health-care professional.

When asked about the hospital being forced to turn away patients, Dubé said the situation is unfortunate and that is why surgeries and appointments are being cancelled in some hospitals — so that doctors and nurses can take on more COVID-19 patients.

“It’s unfortunate but it’s the reality we’re facing right now,” he said.

Last week, the Institut national d’excellence en sante et en services sociaux said in its latest weekly projections that COVID-19 hospital capacity should be sufficient in Montreal in the coming weeks as well as in Quebec as a whole. But it cautioned the situation remains tenuous in some outlying regions, due to COVID-19 outbreaks in elder care.

Fewer beds available in some hospitals

The Lakeshore General Hospital isn’t the only health-care institution in Montreal dealing with the fallout from the pandemic.

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The McGill University Health Centre (MUHC), which oversees several hospitals in the area, says that its emergency departments are “indeed full despite lower overall volumes of patients.”

“However, due to COVID-19 there are fewer beds available to non-COVID patients making overall wait times longer to access a bed, in particular at the adult Glen site where COVID-19 beds are located,” the organization said in a statement.

Click to play video 'Quebec reports more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time since pandemic began' Quebec reports more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time since pandemic began
Quebec reports more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases for the first time since pandemic began – Dec 5, 2020

In late November, the MUHC has had to limit access to the emergency room at the Lachine Hospital due to COVID-19 outbreaks. People are being asked to seek emergency care elsewhere, but other patient services have resumed.

“The situation is now slowly returning closer to normal on that site,” the MUHC said.

Aside from Montreal, the pressure of the COVID-19 crisis on hospital emergency rooms in the province is particularly felt in the Montérégie, Quebec City and Outaouais regions.

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Some experts call for temporary lockdown

Dozens of public health and economics experts are calling on the province to institute a temporary COVID-19 lockdown in December as new infections surpassed 1,500 for the third straight day.

More than 75 experts signed an open letter published in Montreal’s La Presse recommending that all non-essential businesses be closed for two weeks to stem the spread of the virus.

“COVID-19 will once again be responsible for too many deaths,” the letter states. “In terms of the health-care system, resources are limited. Our healthcare system is under great strain.”

READ MORE: First coronavirus vaccine shots could be doled out in Canada next week

Dr. Howard Bergman, a professor of family and geriatric medicine at McGill University and another signatory of Monday’s open letter, said health-care workers were relieved when the Quebec government cancelled gatherings over Christmas.

A temporary lockdown this month, he said, would have a positive psychological effect on those front-line workers as they prepare for January, when hospitalizations and intensive-care admissions typically rise.

“We want to protect our health-care system, which is always at a fragile point in this type of pandemic,” he said.

— With files from Global News’ Anne Leclair and The Canadian Press

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