Quebec minister defends transfer of seniors to care homes during COVID-19 first wave

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QUEBEC — Contrary to popular belief, the Quebec government did not massively transfer elderly patients to long-term care homes to free up hospital beds at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the province's former health minister told a coroner's inquest Thursday.

Danielle McCann, who was shuffled out of the health portfolio in June 2020, testified that transfers from hospitals to care homes rose 20 per cent in March 2020 compared to the previous month, for a total of fewer than 1,000 transfers.

"It was not a massive transfer," she told the inquest, which is probing the high death toll in the long-term care sector in spring 2020.

The Quebec government has faced criticism for its decision to transfer patients from hospitals to understaffed and under-equipped care homes, where about 4,000 residents died during the first wave of COVID-19.

Dr. Jacques Ramsay, who is assisting coroner Géhane Kamel in her investigation, told McCann that the number of transfers may seem small, but was "significant." Many long-term care homes, known as CHSLDs, would go on to have trouble creating separate zones for infected and non-infected patients because of the high number of residents, he said.

"The CHSLDs lost the agility they could have had," Ramsay said.

McCann said the government decided that transferring patients to long-term care homes would help protect them from catching COVID-19 in hospitals. Some patients were also transferred to mental health facilities, rehab centres, palliative care or home care, she added.

At the onset of the pandemic, the province set out to free up hospital beds in anticipation of receiving up to 35,000 sick patients. Instead, the maximum number of patients never surpassed 1,500, a witness testified earlier this week.

McCann placed much of the blame for the health system woes on the previous Liberal government, whose 2015 budget cuts resulted in the loss of "at least 1,500" middle and senior management positions, she said. That loss left many long-term care homes without managers to oversee the pandemic response, she added.

McCann also noted several times that long-term care homes fell under the direct responsibility of Seniors Minister Marguerite Blais, rather than her own office. Blais, who is on sick leave, will not testify at the inquest.

But later on Thursday, it was McCann's turn to be criticized. Daniel Desharnais, an assistant deputy minister and ex-chief of staff to former Liberal health minister Gaetan Barrette, noted that even care homes that had management teams fared poorly during the pandemic.

Québec solidaire health critic Sol Zanetti said that while the Liberal health reform was an aggravating factor in the pandemic, McCann bore some of the responsibility, given that she served as health minister from 2018 to 2020. "She had two years to correct the Barrette reform and didn't do it," he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, health officials reported 720 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and two more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. Hospitalizations jumped by 10, to 205, and the number of people in intensive care remained relatively stable, dropping by one, to 46.

The province administered 11,094 COVID-19 vaccine doses in the previous 24 hours. Quebecers between the ages of 75 and 79 became eligible Thursday to book appointments for third doses of COVID-19 vaccine, two days after the system opened to those 80 and up. Quebec's public health institute said 91 per cent of residents 12 and over have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 88.6 per cent were fully vaccinated.

Also Thursday, reports indicated the federal government was expected to announce Friday that Health Canada has approved a COVID-19 vaccine for children aged five to 11. Speaking at a news conference in Montreal, Premier François Legault said the announcement would "completely change the situation" in the province and pave the way for a return to pre-pandemic life.

"To add children of five to 11 years old will massively increase the percentage of the population that is vaccinated," Legault said, adding that vaccinating children would allow the government to potentially drop the vast majority of health orders related to the pandemic.

"It's extraordinary," he said.

Legault said the government was ready to start vaccinating kids as soon as the approval is announced, adding that he hoped to finish by early 2022.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 18, 2021.

Caroline Plante, The Canadian Press

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