Quebec health unions decry plan to allow COVID-positive health-care workers to stay on the job

·4 min read
In the last 24 hours, nearly 500 health-care workers tested positive for COVID-19 across the province, according to Radio-Canada, bringing the total number of health-care staff off the job with the virus to more than 5,600.   (CBC / Radio-Canada - image credit)
In the last 24 hours, nearly 500 health-care workers tested positive for COVID-19 across the province, according to Radio-Canada, bringing the total number of health-care staff off the job with the virus to more than 5,600. (CBC / Radio-Canada - image credit)

In a move that's drawing ire from health unions and workers, the Quebec government is floating a controversial measure to cope with a shortage of hospital staff as COVID-19 cases spike.

The highly transmissible Omicron variant means thousands of health-care workers are currently unable to work.

In the last 24 hours, nearly 500 health-care workers tested positive for COVID-19 across the province, according to Radio-Canada, bringing the total number of health-care staff off the job with the virus to more than 5,600.

In response to the absences, which are depleting an already short list of personnel and exacerbating the long-standing labour crisis in Quebec's hospitals, Radio-Canada has learned the government is seriously considering allowing asymptomatic COVID-19 positive health-care workers to stay on the job.

Several unions are denouncing the controversial measure, which has been an option for health facilities since last March per a government document, but which very few have implemented.

"We don't want infected workers back in the hospital," said Réjean Leclerc, president of the FSSS-CSN union, which represents more than 130,000 health-care workers in Quebec.

"It's like letting the wolf into the sheep pen," he said, noting the inevitability of transmission as infected and non-infected workers pass each other in the hallway and share the same cafeteria.

Under this measure, asymptomatic, infected workers would work exclusively with COVID-19 patients as to not infect any new admissions. But Naveed Hussain, a nurse at the McGill University Health Centre, says the new variants are "gamechangers."

Charles Contant/CBC
Charles Contant/CBC

"Things evolve quite rapidly," Hussain said. "You might have someone that's asymptomatic and infected and within a couple of hours are symptomatic, and next thing you know, we're infecting patients and infecting our colleagues … and we lose more health-care staff."

Julie Bouchard, president of the FIQ, Quebec's largest nurses' union, urged the government to rethink the measure in an email addressed to the Health Ministry and obtained by CBC Montreal.

"It would be irresponsible to expose other essential workers when we will need all the resources to treat the infected population," Bouchard wrote.

She said the measure could "seriously compromise the safety of health-care settings and the public's confidence in them."

N95 masks for all workers, unions urge

The FSSS-CSN and the FIQ are imploring the government to reinstate some of the measures imposed in long-term care facilities and hospitals during previous waves, including establishing hot and cold zones in hospitals, limiting staff mobility between centres, and making N95 masks available to all staff members.

"We need to take more precautions because this time, we know what we're dealing with — we've been living it for 20 months," Leclerc said.

Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters
Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters

On Thursday, Radio-Canada reported the province purchased 10 million more N95 masks to bulk up its stock, in addition to the 15 million it has in reserve. They will be used to equip more health workers, but not all.

Leclerc says the masks need to be made available to everyone, adding multiple health-workers falling sick at the same time will result in a "shutdown of the system."

"We can't be half-protected, we need to be sufficiently protected to avoid absences," he said.

The CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l'Île-de-Montréal also issued a directive Thursday to recommend the wearing of the N95 in "cold" zones in hospitals, without waiting for Quebec to move on the issue.

On Friday, Quebec's workplace safety board, the CNESST, issued a directive demanding the increased use of N95 masks for health-care workers in at-risk situations in the face of the resurgence of COVID-19 cases and the arrival of the Omicron variant.

"The CNESST demands the expansion of the coverage and the use of the N95 mask to those who provide care in the most risky situations, including certain situations in cold areas," a release reads.

Ivanoh Demers/CBC
Ivanoh Demers/CBC

Earlier, the government had said it would distribute N95 masks primarily in emergency rooms and in family medicine groups (GMF).

Nurse Hussain says he would support that call, despite the clear risks his colleagues face on a daily basis.

"Our resources are finite... We need to share these resources appropriately and adequately," he said.

"This is an invisible war ... As health-care workers, we are soldiers in this fight. We'll continue to fight on because our priority is to protect our patients."

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