Quebec says some COVID-positive health workers to stay on job, with conditions

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MONTREAL — Quebec will keep some COVID-positive health-care workers on the job in order to avoid a breakdown in services, officials say as the province once again smashed its previous single-day case record with more than 12,800 infections.

Health Minister Christian Dubé said the decision regarding workers will be made on a "case-by-case" basis.

The province has little choice but to change its isolation protocols due to the meteoric spread of the Omicron variant, which has created staff shortages, he said.

The health system cannot maintain services while nearly 7,000 workers are home isolating because of a positive COVID-19 test or exposure to the virus, he said. He expects that number to rise to 10,000 in the coming days, he added.

“Omicron’s contagion is so exponential that a huge number of personnel have to be withdrawn, and that poses a risk to the network capacity to treat Quebecers,” he told a news conference Tuesday.

The health minister suggested that the measure would also apply to other categories of essential workers, and said more information will be coming soon.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, the province’s public health director, said COVID-19 positive health workers could be assigned to work with patients who test positive, be given extra protective equipment and would not be allowed to eat lunch with their colleagues who test negative.

Health officials noted the decision amounted to choosing the lesser of two bad options.

"We're saying this is the best alternative compared to not providing care to the people," Dubé said.

Quebec shattered its previous pandemic record with 12,833 new COVID-19 cases. The province reported 15 deaths and an 88-person jump in the number of people who are hospitalized with the novel coronavirus.

Health officials said 702 people are hospitalized, and 115 are in intensive care.

All indicators suggest Omicron is less severe than previous strains of COVID-19, such as Delta, although officials are not sure by how much, he said.

The number of people in intensive care remains manageable for now, he added.

Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said on Twitter that a request for federal assistance Quebec sent in December had been approved.

"Our officials are engaging with their provincial counterparts to clarify the specific needs, and we will share more details as they are confirmed," he said.

Dubé said the province is expanding eligibility for third doses of vaccine starting Wednesday with more workers such as school staff, police and fire services, food inspectors, and some private health care workers who were not previously eligible.

The province will begin gradually expanding booster access to the entire adult population beginning Jan. 4. All Quebecers 18 and over should be eligible to register for boosters by Jan. 21, he said.

Health officials noted that COVID-19 case counts in the province are an undercount because many people are testing positive at home with rapid tests, which are not tracked by the province.

Both officials said the province may come up with a platform to count rapid test results, but accurate case counts are less of a priority than getting booster shots into Quebecers’ arms.

Arruda noted that moving forward, hospitalizations and deaths are likely a better gauge of the disease than case numbers.

"I prefer to vaccinate than to accumulate statistics."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec 28, 2021

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said 155 people are in intensive care. The number of people in intensive care is 115.

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