Quebec allows some infected health workers to stay on the job as COVID-related absences rise

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé announced Tuesday that some health-care workers in the province who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have come in close contact with a case may remain on the job to protect hospital capacity. 

Appointments for 3rd vaccine doses to become available for all adults by Jan. 21

Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé, shown on Dec. 16 in Montreal, announced on Tuesday that some health-care workers in the province who have tested positive for COVID-19 or come in close contact with a confirmed case may remain on the job to protect hospital capacity. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press)

Quebec's health minister announced on Tuesday that some health-care workers in the province who have tested positive for COVID-19 or come in close contact with a confirmed case may remain on the job to protect hospital capacity.

The province plans on extending the policy to all essential workers in the coming days and weeks. Health Minister Christian Dubé said the decision was made as a form of "risk management" as the health-care system experiences thousands of COVID-related absences.

Dubé said the government has been in talks with unions for several days about the change in policy. He said they came to the conclusion it was the only way to prevent "permanent damage" for people who need health care and that decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis. 

"The reality is that we have more and more sick people and fewer and fewer nursing staff," he said. "This is what we have to do if we want our society to continue to safely function." 

The minister said there were about 7,000 health-care workers off the job on Monday due to COVID-19, and that number is expected to rise to 10,000 in the coming days. Those temporary absences are in addition to the thousands of nurses who left the public system during the pandemic because of the toll it was taking.

"If we have the choice, we wouldn't do it, but our situation is urgent and critical in the short term," Dubé said. "This is the best alternative to not providing care."

WATCH | Some Quebec health workers with COVID-19 can continue working: 

Quebec to allow some health workers to keep working despite testing positive for COVID-19

1 year ago
Duration 2:21
In addition to the new measure that would allow certain health workers who tested positive to stay on the job in certain circumstances, Quebec Health Minister Christian Dubé says the province will also expand third-dose eligibility on Wednesday. (Credit: Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Quebec's public health director, Dr. Horacio Arruda, who accompanied Dubé at the news conference, said the Health Ministry has devised an "order of priority" to guide managers in deciding who can stay at work and who should isolate. 

As an example, Arruda said a worker with few or no symptoms could be assigned to an area where there are patients who are also COVID-positive. Another example would be a worker whose family member has tested positive but who has not yet received a positive result themselves.

"If someone's not in good shape, we won't send them to work," he said.

It is not yet clear how this order or priorities will affect workers in long-term care homes.

Quebec's largest nurses' union, the Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec (FIQ), is criticizing the decision, noting health workers still don't have full access to N95 masks. 

"It is enormous pressure that the minister is putting on the backs of our members, and they should not have to bear the burden of the government's lack of preparation, nor of the risk of contamination in their workplaces," said Julie Bédard, president of the FIQ. 

The FSSS-CSN union, which represents more than 130,000 health-care workers in Quebec, has also come out against the measure.

"Poor management of the pandemic once again puts health network staff at risk and therefore patients, who are all the more vulnerable," said that union's president, Réjean Leclerc. 

Leclerc said the Health Ministry should focus on improving protective measures in the network instead, including adding testing sites to workplaces, improving ventilation and creating more stable health-care teams.

But Dr. Michel de Marchie, an intensive care specialist at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, said hospitals can't lose more personnel.

"The number of cases is increasing, elective surgeries are getting cancelled and staff are feeling the stress," de Marchie said. "The minister had no choice."

WATCH | ICU doctor says health-care labour shortage means some COVID-positive workers must stay on the job: 

ICU doctor says health-care labour shortage means some COVID-positive workers must stay on the job

1 year ago
Duration 5:17
Dr. Michel de Marchie, an intensive-care unit doctor at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital, says the province has 'no choice' but to allow some health-care workers infected with COVID-19 to stay on the job.

Wider eligibility for 3rd dose

The health minister also announced that Quebec will be widening the scope of its vaccine booster campaign. As of Jan. 4, Quebecers aged 55 to 59 can book online appointments. Appointments will open to a new age group every few days until Jan. 21.

The goal is to vaccinate between two million and three million people every month and have administered boosters to every eligible Quebecer who wants one by March.

Quebec Premier François Legault received a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 booster vaccine dose at Montreal's Olympic Stadium on Monday. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Health officials are also considering shortening the isolation period for those who test positive, following a decision by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to shorten quarantine from 10 days to five across industries, in the face of a serious labour shortage.

Dubé urged Quebecers who are not vaccinated to get their shots, noting that the majority of patients in intensive care are unvaccinated. He said that out of 12,833 new cases in the province in the past 24 hours, about 8,000 are not vaccinated. 

"Those are people who are going to end up in hospital," he said.

Cases, hospitalizations spiked over holidays

The 12,833 cases reported on Tuesday represent another daily record in Quebec. 

According to data tables published by the province's public health institute, the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ), there were more than 10,000 new cases of the virus reported on both Dec. 22 and 23.

There are 702 people in hospital (an increase of 88 from the previous day), including 115 in intensive care (an increase of six).

Capacity in hospitals for treating COVID-19 patients is slightly higher than last week, at 825, according to the latest dashboard of data published by the Health Ministry on Twitter.

Hospital officials said they are cutting down on non-urgent procedures and activities, delaying up to 50 per cent of surgeries, in order to free up staff to help out with COVID patients. 

While much of the focus has been on hospitals, some outbreaks have begun to pop up in nursing homes and in long-term care. 

CHSLD Marguerite-Rocheleau, a long-term care residence for seniors, has reported a major outbreak among residents and staff.

The facility, located in Saint-Hubert in the Montérégie region, reported 92 active cases on Tuesday. Some 61 residents and 31 staff are infected. Two people have died.

Dubé said a ministry team is closely monitoring the situation in long-term care but that most residents had received a third vaccine dose, which has been shown to lessen the risk of a severe outcome from the disease. 

He said there's a "big difference" in long-term care homes compared with the first wave of the pandemic, which killed thousands of elderly residents.


Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.