COVID-19 in Quebec: With long-term care homes still short-staffed, premier asks Ottawa for 1,000 soldiers

Premier François Legault said the province has not been able to find enough trained workers to meet the immediate needs at its besieged long-term care institutions, even after bringing in 350 medical specialists and others to help out.

Number of seniors' residences considered 'critical' by the province nearly doubled in 1 week

Another 1,000 soldiers will join the 65 troops with medical training who arrived earlier this week to support staff at CHSLDs. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

The latest:

  • Quebec has 20,965 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 1,134 people have died — the majority, residents of long-term care institutions and other seniors' homes.
  • There are 1,278 people in hospital, including 199 in intensive care. Here's a guide to the numbers.
  • Quebec is considering gradually reopening schools and daycares before the end of the June. 
  • Operating rooms could soon open at 50 per cent capacity for semi-urgent procedures.
  • Director of Public Health Dr. Horacio Arruda says guidelines on wearing masks are coming later this week.

Quebec is asking the federal government to send 1,000 soldiers to help staff the province's besieged long-term care institutions, where the novel coronavirus continues to claim dozens of lives each day. 

Legault said he made the request because the province has not been able to find enough workers with the right training to meet the immediate needs of the worst-hit long-term care homes, known as CHSLDs.

For a week now, intensive recruitment efforts have been directed at medical specialists, nursing students and their teachers, and anyone with experience in the population at large.

But Legault said a major stumbling block has been the need for applicants to make a full-time, two-week commitment to a single facility — criteria aimed at minimizing on-the-job training and curtailing the further spread of the disease.

"It's not ideal," Legault said of his decision to call for more military back-up. "But at the same time, I think it will help us a lot to have the extra pairs of hands to do non-medical tasks and help the staff."

The 1,000 soldiers will join the 65 troops with medical training already supporting staff at CHSLDs in the Montreal region, as well as the detachment of Rangers now lending a hand in some remote communities in Quebec's far north.

Quebec's long-term care homes already faced a chronic shortage of nurses and patient attendants, before the outbreak. 

Without sufficient personnel, COVID-19 spread rapidly through dozens of facilities, especially those in the Montreal area. As more and more staff have come into contact with the virus and been forced into isolation, many long-term care homes have been unable to provide residents with the most basic level of care.

The number of residences considered to be in a "critical situation" has more than doubled in the past week, going from 41 to 85.

At the CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée in Laval, 177 residents — or 92 per cent  — have tested positive for COVID-19, and at least 67 of them have died. 

The official death count has risen to 33 at the Herron, a privately owned CHSLD in Dorval. There are 73 positive COVID-19 cases at the residence — which means at least 75 per cent of residents are sick.

The premier announced another 93 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, bringing the total number of fatalities linked to the virus to 1,134. The vast majority of those victims are seniors in care.

'Two worlds'

Legault said there are now "two worlds" in the province: one in the CHSLDs, where the situation remains critical.

But outside the CHSLDs — and outside the greater Montreal region, which is the epicentre of the pandemic in Quebec — transmission of the disease is dropping.

"We're moving in the right direction," Legault said.

The rising death toll among seniors in care, however, puts the province on pace to surpass the most optimistic scenario presented by public health experts earlier this month: 1,263 deaths by April 30.

When calculated as a rate per 1 million residents, Quebec is faring worse than the United States at similar stages in the pandemic's evolution.

Public Health Director Horacio Arruda, left, warned against drawing hasty conclusions from comparing Quebec's death toll with that of other countries. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

But the province's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, cautioned against drawing hasty conclusions from comparisons with other countries.

Quebec, he pointed out, uses a more inclusive definition of what counts as a death attributable to COVID-19. Unlike other jurisdictions, Quebec includes probable — but not tested — fatalities outside hospitals.

"It's like comparing apples to oranges and, why not, to bananas, as well," Arruda said.

Given the improving situation, Legault said the government will release details next week about how and when the lockdown and other restrictions imposed due to the pandemic will be relaxed.

But he clarified that while schools will reopen before the fall, attendance won't be obligatory. It will be left to parents to decide if they want their children to return to classes. 

More questions about equipment

The government, meanwhile, continues to face questions from health-care workers who say they are still short of personal protective equipment.

About 1.6 per cent of health-care workers in Quebec — as many as 4,000 — are sick with COVID-19, according to Health Minister Danielle McCann. In Montreal, however, that figure is closer to three per cent. 

Orderlies and cleaning staff are about twice as likely to catch the virus than nurses, according to Jeff Begley, president of the CSN-affiliated health and social services federation.

'In general, I would say to you that the distribution [of protective equipment] is going well, but I know there are exceptions,' Health Minister Danielle McCann said Wednesday. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

"That's not surprising, because the hot spots are in long-term care centres, and the staff that are on the day-to-day front lines are, majority, this type of worker," Begley said.

He said some employees are having to reuse single-use masks and wear them longer than they normally should. 

On Wednesday, McCann reiterated that the province now has sufficient protective equipment for all its health-care workers. Any shortages on the ground, she said, are likely the result of distribution issues. 

"In general, I would say to you that the distribution is going well, but I know there are exceptions," McCann said. She invited anyone who experienced a problem to contact her office, promising it would be dealt with "within the hour."

A bit of levity

Things feel a little bleak. But people are finding ways to bring joy to themselves and others. This Trois-Rivières family is using some of their time at home to show off their moves — on TikTok.

The three Haley-Guimond sisters have even enlisted their parents. 

A Quebec City couple, Evelyne Paré and Simon Blanchet, has garnered attention with their method of passing the time.

Paré and Blanchet made a stop-motion video that used nearly 5,000 pieces of Lego to pay tribute to the province's health-care and other essential workers.

The result is a film that runs just under two minutes, starring Arruda, McCann and the premier, a.k.a. François Lego.

It took Simon Blanchet and Evelyn Paré 10 days to produce and edit the stop-motion film, entitled La Mise à jour de François Lego, or François Lego's daily briefing. (SimonLePlusMerveilleux/You Tube)

With files from Ainslie MacLellan and Spencer Van Dyk

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