As the novel coronavirus health crisis continues to evolve in Quebec, some nurses and other health-care staff who have been toiling on the front lines of the pandemic in Montreal will have to work through Christmas.
A memo to staff issued by the CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, the regional health authority, on Thursday points to an uptick in cases and hospitalizations in the region.
The note, which was obtained by Global News, states that given the current numbers the health authority “must use every means possible to prevent the situation from worsening.”
“We are once again launching a call for mobilization, as well as various measures that call on volunteering, in the hopes that we can count on the mobilization shown during the first pandemic,” the letter reads.
The CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal writes that vacations from Dec. 13 to Jan. 30, 2021 are cancelled for a large swath of staff in the health authority’s institutions, including nurses and health and social services technicians.
Exceptions for vacation time during that period will be made for humanitarian or other special personal reasons, according to the letter.
A health-care worker at St-Mary’s Hospital, which is overseen by the health authority, says some of his colleagues are “very discouraged” by the decision to cut much-needed vacations.
The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says those working on the front lines have been struggling for nine months to keep a pandemic under control. After long-awaited time off was cancelled, he is considering leaving.
“In public, we’re guardian angels,” he said. “In private, they are stepping all over our wings.”
Under the plan, the memo also states managers will be allowed to take four consecutive days off, but their vacations are otherwise cancelled.
“The presence of managers in the field is necessary to support the teams,” the letter to staff states.
In the memo, the health authority also says that redeployments are currently underway to move staff “in an effort to lend a hand in at-risk sectors.”
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When contacted by Global News, a CIUSSS spokesperson said in a statement that statutory holidays will be maintained.
Staff are asked to “voluntarily cancel” their vacations — but that in the absence of volunteers, the health authority will use the ministerial decree to do so.
“This application will only be used in the event of a breakdown in service. Holidays for the 2020 holiday season are not canceled by default,” the health authority says.
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Elizabeth Rich, who works with the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec, told Global News that the CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal is the only health authority that has been given such a mandate.
She says nurses who have been on the front lines of the pandemic for the past nine months are wiped.
“People are very tired. People don’t know where to turn to,” she said. “I have a lot of people on sick leave right now and people just decide to leave. It’s very hard for them to hear this.”
“In the summer they were not allowed to take two weeks vacation because of the lack of staffing and now it’s starting all over again.”
In a statement, the CIUSSS says it understands that employees have been working hard “in a very difficult context, and that we have already asked them a lot.”
“Together, we have shown that the health and safety of our patients is one of our top priorities,” the health authority says.
Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé says he respects the decision to cut vacations, citing the evolving situation in Montreal’s West Island.
He specifically pointed to the Lakeshore General Hospital, which is dealing with a number of COVID-19 outbreaks.
“This is not what we like,” he said, referring to postponing vacations for health-care workers. “But I think it was prudent.”
The move comes as Montreal, which has been hard hit by the COVID-19 health crisis, recorded a new record high in daily cases Thursday. Public health authorities say they are concerned about the evolving situation and say outbreaks are growing in health-care institutions.
Quebec has seen a spike in hospitalizations, cases and deaths in recent weeks. The growing number of patients has put a strain on the health-care system, forcing the cancellation of surgeries and other medical activities in some hospitals.
As of Friday, there were 871 COVID-19 patients in Quebec hospitals.