Pressure mounting on Quebec hospitals as 20,000 health-care staff isolating

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MONTREAL — The pressure on Quebec hospitals is reaching a point where some heart and cancer-related surgeries risk being postponed to make room for COVID-19 patients, the head of the province's hospital network said Thursday.

"We're in a really critical phase," assistant deputy health minister Dr. Lucie Opatrny told reporters in Montreal. Should hospitals be forced to delay serious procedures for an extended period of time, there will be "side-effects" for patients, she said.

Meanwhile, the number of health-care workers who are off the job due to COVID-19 has reached 20,000, Health Minister Christian Dubé told the news conference, adding that another 30,000 workers are absent for other reasons, including burnout. The rising number of COVID-19 patients and the rate of absenteeism among health staff is "the worst combination" for the province, Dubé said.

Hospitals across Quebec have already reduced surgeries by about 50 per cent, Opatrny explained, adding that about half the delayed procedures are being done in private clinics. But that plan may not free enough beds for the rising number of COVID-19 patients, she warned.

Quebec reported 1,953 COVID-19-related hospitalizations Thursday, a rise of almost 12 per cent compared with the prior day. It's the highest number of hospitalizations reported in the province since the beginning of the pandemic. The government has said about 40 per cent of those patients are not in hospital for COVID-19, but have tested positive after being admitted. Dubé, however, said those patients require additional resources because they must remain isolated from patients who do not have the disease.

Earlier in the day, a research institute that reports to the government, the Institut national d'excellence en santé et services sociaux, said there could be more than 3,000 COVID-19 patients in regular hospital beds and another 400 in intensive care in two weeks' time. But the institute cautioned that its most recent modelling didn't take into account recent restrictions, such as the closure of restaurant dining rooms and the 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew.

As soon as next week, many hospitals across Quebec will have to further postpone surgeries to make room for COVID-19 patients. The Estrie region, located east of Montreal, and the Laurentian region, north of Montreal, are approaching the point where they will have to implement the province's plan for the highest level of service reduction, known as level four. The majority of the province's health regions are at level three.

"We're not talking about only elective surgery, we're talking also about surgeries that should be operated within a several-month spectrum," Opatrny said, such as cardiac and cancer surgeries, as well as non-urgent care in emergency rooms.

But even that level of service reduction will not free enough staff or enough beds if the number of COVID-19 patients continues to rise rapidly over the next two weeks, Opatrny said.

Dubé said about 20,000 health staff are off work because they have tested positive for COVID-19 or have been exposed to the virus, adding that the government is working with unions to find more staff to care for up to 2,500 COVID-19 patients.

The health minister said unvaccinated people represent about 10 per cent of Quebec adults but account for more than 50 per cent of COVID-19 intensive care patients. Given those statistics, Dubé said that starting Jan. 18, people will be required to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter liquor and cannabis stores.

Dubé said the new rules are intended to reduce contacts involving unvaccinated people and to coerce them to get their first doses of vaccine. He added that the vaccine passport may soon be required at other services and businesses, such as shopping malls and personal care salons.

"If they won't protect themselves, we will protect them from themselves," Dubé said. Quebec's vaccine passport is required to access businesses such as bars and restaurants, which have been closed to reduce COVID-19 transmission. Liquor and cannabis stores, however, are still open during the lockdown.

He added that the vaccine passport would be updated to require three doses instead of two, as soon as all Quebecers have access to booster shots. The general public 50 and older can book appointments for third doses, as can pregnant women, health-care workers and other select groups.

Officials reported 15,874 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and 26 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. They said about 31 per cent of tests came back positive, up from the 28 per cent reported on Wednesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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