COVID-19 in Quebec: Risk of complications low if you're under 70, deputy premier assures worried teachers

As elementary school teachers gear up to head back to the classroom in much of the province, Quebec Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault said it’s natural for them to be anxious about COVID-19, but public health authorities now conclude people 69 or younger face little risk.

'It's natural to feel distress' about virus, says Guilbault, announcing $31M in new mental health spending

Quebec Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault said Wednesday that public health has revised its risk outlook, concluding anyone younger than 70 is safe to return to work. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The latest:

  • Quebec has 34,327 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and 2,510 people have died. That's 112 more recorded deaths from a day earlier.
  • There are 1,840 people in hospital, including 213 in intensive care. Here's a guide to the numbers.
  • With outbreaks in provincial jails in the Montreal area, low-risk offenders serving fewer than 30 days can now seek release for medical reasons.
  • Quebec is gradually allowing residents in private seniors' homes that don't have positive COVID-19  cases to go outside unaccompanied. 
  • Caregivers will be allowed to enter CHSLDs, RPAs and other types of seniors' residences starting on May 11.

As elementary school teachers gear up to head back to the classroom in much of the province, Quebec Deputy Premier Geneviève Guilbault said anyone younger than 70 has little to worry about.

"Teachers are worried about their health, and that's understandable," said Guilbault at a provincial briefing Wednesday. "Public health authorities tell us that before the age of 70, it is possible to return to work without significant risk."

In an earlier briefing, Premier François Legault had said teachers and daycare workers over 60 would not have to take up their positions as schools and daycares reopen in the coming weeks. 

The question of whether older teachers would be expected in their classrooms has sown confusion and anxiety among many educators. Guilbault described the new public health position as a "clarification."

"Of course, people between 60 and 70 are more at risk than people under 60," said Guilbault. "But ... they can go back to work without being worried."

"We ask all employers in the province ... make sure that people between 60 and 70 — people at any age — are able to respect the rules of distancing and hand washing and everything else that we have to comply with."

She said class sizes in elementary schools will be limited to a maximum of 15 students, while daycares will reopen at just 30 per cent capacity at the start.

"It's natural to feel distress" about the virus, said the deputy premier, noting that this week is national Mental Health Week. She announced the government will invest another $31 million in mental health services.

34 infected at Montreal's Bordeaux jail 

Guilbault, who is also public security minister, acknowledged there are outbreaks at provincial jails — notably Montreal's Bordeaux jail, where 34 detainees are infected.

She announced Quebec will begin releasing low-risk offenders who are serving 30 days or less, if they have any medical risks. B.C. and Manitoba have done the same.

"We're taking the situation very seriously, and we're doing everything we can to protect correctional officers, as well as inmates," she said.

The Quebec government intends to begin granting medical releases to vulnerable inmates serving sentences for minor offences at provincial detention centres like Montreal's Bordeaux jail, where 34 detainees now have tested positive for COVID-19. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Asked about what Quebec is doing about the low occupancy rate of key hospitals in Montreal and Laval, Health Minister Danielle McCann said the continued staffing shortage in the health-care system — more than 11,000 workers are absent provincewide — is creating a bottleneck in patient transfers. 

The latest government figures show the occupancy rate at Cité de la Santé hospital in Laval stands at 97 per cent — a serious enough concern that Place Bell arena has been converted into a temporary hospital.

In Montreal, hospital bed occupancy rates are closing in on 80 per cent, prompting the province to delay by a week plans to reopen much of the retail sector in the greater Montreal region.

The province has set up temporary hospitals in hotels and disused institutions like Montreal's Hotel Dieu, creating space for 700 patients who are ready to be discharged from acute-care hospitals but cannot be returned to long-term care homes. 

The beds are ready and waiting, McCann said, but the province doesn't have the staff to spare.

"We are looking for other strategies to find more full-time workers to come and help us," she said Wednesday.

A worker adjusts cables at the new temporary hospital being set up inside Place Bell arena in Laval, where the bed occupancy rate at the city's only acute-care hospital stands at 97 per cent. (Radio-Canada)

Roaming health-care workers likely spreading virus

A CBC investigation found that after staff from one West Island residence were sent to help at homes in LaSalle and returned, the number of residents infected with COVID-19 went from zero to 31. 

Quebec's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, said Tuesday that while the initial outbreaks in seniors' homes had likely come from health-care workers and visitors who had returned from holidays outside the country, more recent outbreaks could probably be traced to staff being moved from facility to facility.

That practice of redeploying workers from one health care institution to others in dire need was mandated by the Health Ministry on April 25 as a solution to the acute staff shortages. At the time, McCann called that a stop-gap measure.

McCann acknowledged Wednesday it is a problem — and one the system is struggling to fix.

"What we need are people full-time people — teams that are the same teams going to the same residence, the same CHSLD, day out, day in," the health minister said. "That's what we're building now, and it's done in many places. But there are still places where we require more staff to do that."

CHSLDs to allow family caregivers as a 'basic principle'

After Quebec's minister for seniors, Marguerite Blais, announced Tuesday that family caregivers will be allowed to return to CHSLDs to see their loved ones, starting Monday, many expressed fears that administrators of those homes would balk.

"If for whatever reason an organization is refusing, they will have to contact the ministry, the organization, and present the dossier quickly, and we will intervene at the ministry level," said McCann Wednesday.

"The basic principle is that all caregivers — the real caregivers that were there before that were really involved systematically with a member of their family — can go in, and if there is a refusal, the ministry will get involved." 

McCann said caregivers will be tested for the virus if they are going into an area of a long-term residence that is COVID-free. If they are visiting someone who is already COVID-positive, a test will not be necessary, she said.

With files from Kate McKenna

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