Quebec hospitals overwhelmed and it's only going to get worse, health officials say

·4 min read
Many Quebec hospitals are at their maximum alert level in places like the Eastern Townships, Mauricie and Centre-du-Québec, the health minister said on Thursday.  (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Many Quebec hospitals are at their maximum alert level in places like the Eastern Townships, Mauricie and Centre-du-Québec, the health minister said on Thursday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Quebec government says it's scrambling to find more staff to deal with an anticipated spike in hospitalizations.

The province's health-care research institute, the INESSS, predicts the need for hospital beds will nearly double in the next two weeks and that will likely lead to more surgery delays, but already hospitals across Quebec are at capacity.

The institute estimates 3,000 regular hospital beds and another 400 intensive care beds will be needed.

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé said the hospital situation will be critical over the next two weeks.

"The Omicron wave is really like a tidal wave that is sweeping over all Western countries," he said Thursday.

"We are not only seeing an increase in the number of patients in our hospitals, but we are also seeing that we are losing even more staff every day."

CBC
CBC

Dubé said about 20,000 health-care workers are off the job because they have been infected with the virus.

"We are in consultation with the unions to find the necessary staff to be able to reopen at least 1,000 additional beds," he said.

He said the Omicron wave has not yet hit a plateau and is continuing to spread through the community.

Many hospitals at maximum alert

Dubé said about 40 per cent of patients in hospital with COVID-19 were initially admitted for other ailments. Though they may not be as sick as someone suffering from severe symptoms, they still put additional strain on the system because they have to be isolated and treated differently than those who aren't infected.

The health minister gave an example of a woman who came in to give birth, but tested positive and additional precautions had to be taken for her care.

Many hospitals are at maximum alert in places like the Eastern Townships, Mauricie and Centre-du-Québec, the health minister said. That means they are increasingly postponing surgeries to free up staff and reassign them to the care of COVID-19 patients.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

For example, the CISSS de Chaudière-Appalaches, which covers the region south of Quebec City from places like Thetford Mines to Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, has dropped services by 50 per cent until Jan. 18.

Dr. Lucie Opatrny, Quebec's associate deputy health minister, said half of hospital surgeries provincewide have been delayed.

"Because of this reduction, every hospital has had to … carefully examine prioritization of patients," she said. But, she added, hospitals are unable to shed enough of the load to get back at capacity.

'Drastic changes'

Experts like Dr. Laurie Robichaud say the situation is worsening quickly.

"We've seen a drastic change in the last few days," said Robichaud, the vice-president of the Quebec association representing emergency medicine specialists.

Robichaud said she's concerned about the combination of the highly contagious variant and dwindling staff numbers.

"To be honest, we are all a little discouraged because we didn't really hit the peak yet. So what's coming in the next week is actually quite scary," she said.

CBC
CBC

It's been getting tougher with more staff absent due to COVID. McGill University Health Centre nurse Naveed Hussain is now one of them.

"This is one of the greatest challenges we've ever faced as a profession in the longest time. This is a war and it's an invisible war. And right now we feel like we're not winning," Hussain said.

Kristina Hoare, a spokesperson for the nurses' union with the West Island health agency, said four hospitals — St. Mary's, Lakeshore, LaSalle and the Douglas — "are at full capacity. We do not have any beds left."

That means many patients are on stretchers and in waiting rooms. Every available bed is occupied, she said.

"It's something we could never have prepared for," she said. "It just keeps getting worse."

Management is constantly searching for solutions, moving people around when possible, but options are limited as Montreal's entire network is feeling the strain, Hoare said.

"We're currently looking with the employer what our solutions are," said Hoare, noting the situation is changing day to day and hour to hour.

It's hard on staff, she said, taking a toll on people mentally and physically as they are faced with longer hours and tough decisions — unable to give the quality care they want as certain services are prioritized over others.

Staff are burning out, calling the union for help, she said.

"They don't know where to turn anymore," said Hoare. "They don't know what to do."

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