Quebec's Heart and Lung Institute scrambles to stem an outbreak after 7 staff contract COVID-19

Workers at Quebec City's main cardiology hospital were largely spared from widespread infections in the initial COVID wave. Now the virus is in their midst, and administrators are vying to stop its spread before it has an effect on services.

Two staff members were infected by patients, but others acquired the coronavirus in the community

Quebec City's Heart and Lung Institute is grappling with a wave of COVID-19 infections among its staff members. (Alexandre Duval/CBC)

Seven staff members at Quebec City's cardiology and pulmonary medicine hospital have tested positive for COVID-19, and another 13 are in isolation at home as they await results of their tests.

About 200 people have already been tested, and dozens more will follow in the coming days. The Quebec Heart and Lung Institute's chief medical officer, Daniel Lefrançois, said "the situation, as we speak, is under control."

But that doesn't mean he and the hospital's other leaders aren't worried.

"We are concerned, but for the moment we are not in a situation where there will be a break in services," Lefrançois said. "But the situation is being taken quite seriously, and we are quite aggressive regarding enforcement of the security protocols."

The president of the Syndicat interprofessionnel de la santé de l'IUCPQ, which represents about 1,000 workers at the hospital, struck a similar tone.

But Sébastien Bouchard also expressed worry at the effect staff members infecting one another could have on the hospital's ability to serve patients. Like most other health institutions in the province, the facility isn't exactly over-staffed.

"We can't afford to have a service interruption with the list of heart surgeries, respiratory medicine procedures and all that," Bouchard said.

He added that asymptomatic workers should be allowed to return to their posts because they can still treat patients, provided they are using adequate personal protection equipment.

Some of the affected staff work in the institution's COVID-19 treatment unit, others work in the emergency department. At least two contracted the virus from patients and two others are believe to have acquired it in the community.

The remainder of the cases are still under investigation.

The Institute's workforce was largely spared in the first COVID wave, but Lefrançois suggested that after six months of dealing with the fallout from a global pandemic, it's only human nature for people – even those who work in the health system and know better – to let their guard down.

"It's hard to have assiduity for 100 per cent of safety measures," he said.

Creating extra treatment capacity

As of Thursday, the hospital was caring for seven COVID patients, and another five suspected cases were being observed in the institute's specialized treatment unit.

The Heart and Lung Institute currently has six open intensive care beds, should the need arise to treat severely ill patients. Lefrançois said they could add nine more in a pinch, and create a second closed COVID unit.

Lefrançois said patients and staff who are affected "should be concerned. But the first thing to do is to apply to ourselves all the precautionary measures."

He also insisted handling the nascent outbreak "is not an impossible task."

"We will contain it," he said.

with files from Spencer van Dyk

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