As coronavirus death toll mounts in Quebec, Legault eyes reopening economy

Even as he announced the largest single-day increase in the province's death toll from COVID-19, Premier François Legault continued Thursday to discuss the province's plans to reopen parts of the province's economy, possibly as early as next month.

Quebec sees record single-day increase in deaths while dismal economic figures are also released

'Protecting the elderly remains our top priority,' Quebec Premier François Legault said Thursday, as deadly outbreaks of the coronavirus continue to ravage residents at several long-term care homes in the province. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Even as he announced the largest single-day increase in the province's death toll from COVID-19, Premier François Legault continued Thursday to discuss the province's plans to reopen parts of the province's economy, possibly as early as next month.

Public health authorities, meanwhile, are struggling to contain outbreaks of the deadly pathogen in several long-term care homes in the province. Legault said Thursday that 41 more people have died from the disease, bringing the overall toll to 216. 

Nearly half of all deaths, 106 in all, have occurred in Quebec residential long-term care centres (CHSLDs). Legault named six in particular where he said the situation is "critical." They are:

  • CHSLD Laflèche in Mauricie, where 20 people have died.
  • CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée in Laval, where 16 people have died.
  • CHSLD La Pinière in Laval, where 10 people have died.
  • CHSLD Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci, Montreal, where 13 people have died. 
  • CHSLD de LaSalle in Montreal, where seven people have died.
  • CHSLD Alfred-Desrochers in Montreal, where five people have died. 

In his daily briefing Thursday, Legault reiterated his government is "doing everything we can to prevent the contagion in other residences, as well, because protecting the elderly remains our top priority."

Staff at the CHSLDs, as well as other types of seniors' residences, have decried poor working conditions since even before the outbreak started. Many say now, they are desperately understaffed and don't have the necessary equipment to protect themselves from getting infected.

The province has already been shifting medical staff from hospitals to long-term care homes. Pay raises are being doled out to nurses and orderlies in both public and private chronic-care institutions. 

Health Minister Danielle McCann has also promised that widespread testing of staff and residents in public and private long-term care institutions will begin soon. McCann said she had spoken to the heads of several institutions to ensure they have the supplies required and are following safety guidelines.

"It's not an easy situation, obviously, but reinforcements are coming,"  McCann said. "We have 1,000 more people in the CHSLD system currently.... We are in the process of really taking control of the situation." 

A worker at the one of the province's worst-hit long-term care homes, CHSLD Sainte-Dorothée in Laval, waves as police and firefighters cheer to show their support. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Economic cost of physical distancing 

The jump in the number of deaths came as the economic consequences of Quebec's sweeping response to the outbreak are starting to become clear. 

Earlier Thursday, Statistics Canada released figures showing Quebec lost an estimated 264,000 jobs in March, driving its unemployment rate from 4.5 per cent to 8.1 per cent. That's the sharpest increase in the country.

Quebec was among the first provinces to impose severe physical-distancing guidelines. On March 23, it ordered a halt to all non-essential business activity until May 4.

In recent days, Legault has struck an optimistic tone at his daily public briefings, pointing to hospitalization rates that are lower than initially feared. The growing death toll, while tragic, aligns with the government's projections, he said Thursday.

He also noted that 99 per cent of the deaths so far in Quebec have been people over the age of 60. He suggested sectors of the economy where there are fewer older people, such as construction, could be among the first to be allowed to start up again.

"We see the unemployment numbers," said Legault. "There are hundreds of thousands of Quebecers who are in financial trouble, so if there is not too much danger, with people staying two metres apart, we have to be able to reopen."

Front-line workers in the province have decried staff and personal protective equipment shortages. The province says it's working on sending more of both. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Quebec's public health director, Horacio Arruda, cautioned that he would only approve a gradual reopening of the economy, in order to avoid a second wave of infections. 

"Other countries that had outbreaks well before us are starting to reopen. But no one is just switching from off to on. We have to be careful," Arruda said.

Projections by public health experts, released earlier this week, indicate Quebec will approach the peak number of new cases sometime around April 18.

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