Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé announced the province would allow some health-care workers who have tested positive to COVID-19 to continue working.
Dubé made the announcement on Tuesday in Montreal as the province faces a surge in cases fuelled by the Omicron variant and a rapid increase in hospitalizations.
“What we are trying to avoid above all … is overwhelming the health network,” he said in French.
“We’re stuck in a vise where hospitalizations are increasing and more and more health workers have to take time off. In other words, we have more and more sick people and less and less people left to take care of them.”
Dubé said that last week 4,000 health workers were absent because of COVID-19 and that number jumped to 7,000 on Tuesday as hospitalizations topped 702, including 115 patients in intensive care units.
He said the number of absentee health workers is expected to reach 10,000 in the next few days.
“In previous waves, we wanted to identify and remove at-risk employees as quickly as possible. With the current level of vaccination, we have to do otherwise — we have no choice,” he said, adding that 98 per cent of health workers are vaccinated.
“We made the decision that under certain conditions, positive staff will be able to continue working under a list of priority and risk management.”
Dubé gave few details about what those conditions entailed but said decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis.
A press release by the Health Ministry, however, provided clarification, saying that the isolation period for health workers who test positive could be shortened depending on the type of exposure, the results of lab tests and the person’s vaccination status.
Dubé said the hope is to expand the new measure to include all essential workers, not just health-care workers, with more details to be announced in the coming days.
Dubé said the new measure was necessary and put in place to avoid further delays in surgeries and diagnostic procedures and avoid a situation where the province can only provide critical care.
Despite Dubé’s assurances of ongoing discussions with unions regarding the new measures, many are already speaking out against them.
In a news release, the Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux (FSSS-CSN), representing 120,000 members in both the public and private network, said there are other measures the government could take instead.
The federation is calling for onsite COVID-19 screening for employees, less shuffling of staff, stabilizing teams and a focus on ventilation in work environments.
“The network is not prepared to face the risks of the government’s decision to bring asymptomatic infected staff back to work,” wrote union president Réjean Leclerc, adding that by putting workers at risk, the measure is also putting patients, who are already vulnerable, at even greater risk.
The Quebec federation of nurses (FIQ) agrees.
In a post on Twitter, the FIQ said keeping infected but asymptomatic workers on the job is too risky.
“FIQ president Julie Bouchard strongly opposes it.”
A regional spokesperson for the Montreal West Island branch of the FIQ reiterated some of the federation’s requests, while also adding a few.
“All we want is proper testing on site for our health-care workers, N95 masks for everybody regardless if you work in a hot zone or cold zone and for them to put back the hot zones and the cold zones,” said Kristina Hoare, suggesting an unfair burden is being placed on staff.
“We ask these health-care workers, like we’ve asked them for the past year and a half, to give 110 per cent and now we’re asking them, on top of giving 110 per cent, to now have to come in sick and do your job.”
Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province’s public health director, said COVID-19 positive health workers could be assigned to work with patients who test positive, be given extra protective equipment and would not be allowed to eat lunch with their colleagues who test negative.
Health officials noted the decision amounted to choosing the lesser of two bad options.
“We’re saying this is the best alternative compared to not providing care to the people,” Dubé said.
Speeding up rollout of booster shots
Among other measures Dubé announced on Tuesday was the speeding up of third-dose booster shots, which provide significantly better protection against the Omicron variant.
As of Wednesday, essential workers — including school staff, public security personnel, people working in community organizations providing health and social services, agricultural workers such as food inspectors and those working in slaughterhouses, as well as health workers in the private sector — will be allowed to book appointments on the Clic Santé website.
Starting on Jan. 4, 2022, booster shots will become progressively available to the general population according to age group.
— With files from The Canadian Press