COVID-19 in Quebec: Doctors answer call for help but situation still critical, Legault says

As Quebec changes the way it counts COVID-19 fatalities and sees a dramatic jump in the death toll overnight, Premier François Legault says efforts to bolster the staffing at the province's long-term care homes continue.

More than 2,000 doctors have signed on to work in Quebec's seniors’ homes, says premier

Ambulance attendants transport a resident from Centre d'hebergement de Sainte-Dorothée, a seniors' home in Laval. Premier François Legault says 2,000 doctors have signed up to help deal with staff shortages in the province's long-term care homes. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)
  • Quebec has 15,857 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Public health now counts recent deaths of people never tested for virus, increasing the death toll to 630.
  • There are 1,018 people in hospital, including 209 in intensive care — nine fewer than Wednesday. Here's a guide to the numbers.
  • A 44-year-old from the Montérégie is the first doctor in Quebec to die from COVID-19.
  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is considering a formal request from Quebec to send in military personnel with medical training to help in long-term care homes.
  • Premier François Legault says schools won't reopen in the short term. 
  • Montreal is advancing loans of up to $50,000 to 1,000 small businesses in the city.

Despite the fact that thousands of doctors have answered the call for help, Premier François Legault says the situation in Quebec's long-term care homes is still critical.

Legault said 2,000 specialists have offered to work at the province's chronically understaffed homes (CHSLDs) since his appeal to them Wednesday.

Freed up by the cancellation of surgeries and non-emergency procedures, specialists are now being assigned to support nurses and orderlies. The doctors stand to earn about $211 per hour while working at CHSLDs.

Legault specified not every doctor signed up to help full time, or even right away, but everyone who is available right now is being deployed.

"It won't be simple," he said.

"The specialists … aren't used to this. The orderlies and nurses aren't either. These people aren't used to working together. It will be a lot of trial and error, but we owe this to our seniors."

A call-out has also gone out to students finishing up their medical or nursing studies, Legault said. But the lack of staff is still the province's main concern, he said.

While the number of transmissions is slowing in society at large, the pandemic has wreaked havoc inside long-term care homes, where staff decry deteriorating working conditions as their colleagues fall ill and must stay home.

Health Minister Danielle McCann said there are nearly 7,000 health-care workers across the province "absent right now." She did not say how many of that number is sick with COVID-19 or self-isolating due to possible exposure to the virus.

Since so many long-term care homes were understaffed even before the outbreak began, McCann said, "obviously, we want to take everyone who wants to help."

Legault has asked the federal government to send trained military personnel to help but says it is still unclear how many people are available.

The premier estimated there may be between 60 and 100 qualified people who may be sent as reinforcements.

Earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed Public Safety Minister Bill Blair received the request for help from Quebec.

"Right now, we're looking at this and trying to see how we can help Quebec during these difficult times," he said. 

Explaining sharp increase in deaths

The focus on bolstering staffing in the province's long-term care homes comes as Quebec saw a big jump in the death toll from COVID-19 overnight, for a total of 630 deaths.

Legault explained not all the deaths happened in the last 24 hours — public health authorities have decided to factor in some who have died recently but never tested positive for the coronavirus. 

The goal, he said, is to get closer to the true number of deaths due to COVID-19.

A resident cries as she speaks to her son on the sidewalk at the Residence Floralies Lasalle. Eighteen of the residents have died in the last three weeks. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Among the dead is a 44-year-old community health specialist from the Monterégie region — the first Quebec doctor to fall victim to the pandemic. 

Quebec's director of public health, Dr. Horacio Arruda, declined to elaborate on the death, saying only that the doctor was not infected at a hospital or long-term care home. 

Quebec has 15,857 confirmed cases of COVID-19. There are 1,018 people in hospital, including 209 in intensive care — nine fewer than Wednesday.

Schools won't reopen for now

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Quebec is expected to peak, or at least plateau, by this weekend, according to public health forecasts. 

Arruda says the curve is already beginning to flatten, indicating physical-distancing measures are working. 

The more positive outlook prompted Legault late last week to suggest sending children back to school and daycares sooner than the projected start date of May 4. 

Epidemiological experts in Quebec say there are both risks and benefits to such a move.

On Thursday, Legault said that while the government is working on plans to ease up on confinement measures, they will start by reopening certain businesses. Schools will not reopen in the short term, he said, but they may open before the end of the school year.

It has now been more than a month since Quebec first declared a public health emergency, and the government has now extended that until April 24. 

The declaration gives more power to the health minister and allows the government to, for example, ban gatherings and restrict access to different regions in the province. 

It was declared for the first time in Quebec's history on March 14. The provincial government renewed it for a third time Wednesday evening.

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