Quebec is short nearly 8,000 more health workers than last summer, prompting the Health Ministry to partially close six emergency rooms and reduce services in some neonatal units.
Many of those workers are on sick leave or have left the system altogether, according to Health Minister Christian Dubé, who spoke to reporters in Quebec City Wednesday morning.
About 800 of those workers have long COVID, meaning they developed long-term complications and side effects from the virus. In all, 59,600 health workers are absent or missing from Quebec's health system.
"It's going to be a difficult summer, but we've tried to find ways to minimize the impacts (of the absences)," Dubé said.
Two of the six emergency rooms that will be operating with reduced hours this summer are in the Eastern Townships, one is in Lachine and the others are scattered across the province. The ministry has released a list of the health care facilities affected. There are 117 emergency rooms in the province.
The minister said the government is also trying to allow more health workers to go on vacation over the summer, as many have had to work throughout the past two years of the pandemic with little time off.
Vincent Marissal, the health critic for opposition party Québec Solidaire, called the plan for summer absences a failure.
"How many people will come up against closed doors in Quebec emergency rooms this summer? Is the CAQ proud of its health record?" Marissal said in a statement.
ERs already under pressure
Dubé's announcement comes weeks after dozens of Quebec emergency room doctors denounced the plan to close emergency room beds to compensate for staff vacations.
About 60 doctors signed an open letter saying the province's emergency rooms are already under extreme pressure and that closing beds could lead to compromised care. They instead called on the government to open more hospital beds this summer.
But at the outset of the summer holiday season, those on the front lines in emergency rooms have said they are concerned about their ability to provide adequate services.
Hundreds of nurses and orderlies left the public health system to work in private practices over the course of the pandemic, or left health care altogether, due to the excruciating workload they faced.
The bulk of the impact of the extra 7,868 absences will be felt in emergency departments as well as in obstetrics and neonatal units, Dubé said.
A team of nurses will be on call to help in nursing units, depending on demand, he added.
As for surgeries, they are expected to continue at the same pace over the summer, as doctors work to catch up on the backlog of 160,000 operations that built up during the COVID-19 pandemic.