MONTREAL — Quebec's health-care system is "running on empty," Premier Francois Legault said Tuesday as the province reported over 30 new hospitalizations
But while Legault expressed sympathy for the exhaustion and frustration of nurses working in hospitals, he said his government could not offer them raises above the level of inflation during ongoing contract talks.
"I'm ready to do pretty much everything. I'm open to all the solutions to reduce nurses' workload," he said.
"The only thing we have to understand is that we can't both make financial efforts to reduce workload and simultaneously give salary increases beyond inflation."
The premier's words came as the province reported a 33-person spike in hospitalizations on Tuesday, further pressuring a health system that advocates say is already exhausted from fighting a first wave.
On Monday, nurses and other health-care workers blocked two major bridges in Montreal and Quebec City, seeking to push the province to address working conditions they say have worsened during COVID-19 and forced some of their colleagues to retire or quit.
Legault acknowledged that nurses are tired and that his government has failed to keep a promise to end mandatory overtime.
"I understand the fatigue. I understand the frustration of the nurses," he told a news conference in Quebec City. Legault said the province is exploring solutions to reduce the nurses' workload.
But at the same time he acknowledged that many full-time jobs go unfilled and new nurses cannot be trained as quickly as patient attendants. He said any deal the province reaches must also respect Quebecers' ability to pay, which has taken a hit during the pandemic.
Quebec reported 877 new cases of COVID-19 and 12 additional deaths linked to the novel coronavirus on Tuesday. However, officials said one death previously attributed to COVID-19 was unrelated, and 90 cases that had been identified as positive were in fact negative.
Health Minister Christian Dube said he is concerned that the jump in cases the province experienced in recent weeks has led to a rise in hospitalizations -- now totalling 565 patients.
Legault encouraged Quebecers to limit the number of people they see and to get tested if they're showing symptoms, have been in contact with a known case or have received a call from health officials asking them to do so.
He said reducing contacts, plus testing, tracing and isolating positive cases, will be key to an eventual relaxing of the current measures in place throughout most of the province, which include a ban on most indoor private gatherings and the closure of bars, restaurants and gyms.
He also expressed concern over the mental health challenges faced by Quebecers, and encouraged them to visit friends and family who live alone, but only one at a time.
"It's not forbidden to visit alone people," he said.
Meanwhile, a research team based at Universite de Montreal is beginning a study to determine how many children and teens in the city have been infected with COVID-19.
The project, which is backed by the federal government, will test for COVID-19 antibodies in people between the age of two and 17 in four Montreal neighbourhoods.
The researchers will also try to determine the extent of mental and emotional health problems among that population.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2020.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press