Wednesday, August 17th, 2022

Isolating Quebec health staff may have to return to work early under new plans | Canada

Quebec healthcare workers exposed to Covid-19 may have to go to work sooner than expected if staffing levels in the Canadian province’s facilities reach a critical point.

Quebec’s health minister, Christian Dubé, made the announcement earlier this week, explaining that in a worst-case scenario the province would have no choice but to insist that isolating employees return to work.

Cases of the Omicron variant have surged in the province: on Thursday, a record-breaking 14,188 new cases were reported, with 939 Covid patients currently in hospital and 138 in intensive care. The Quebec newspaper La Presse reported that hospitals in the province were getting close to activating the contingency plan.

The Omicron wave has wreaked havoc on the province’s healthcare sector, which is already stretched thin. “A few days ago, 4,000 [healthcare workers] were absent. Yesterday was 7,000. In the coming days, it will be 10,000,” Dubé said at a news conference on Tuesday.

On Wednesday afternoon, government health officials explained how the employee recall process would work.

Asymptomatic employees who were randomly exposed to Covid – at a shopping centre or gym, for example – would not have to isolate at all. Instead, they would be asked to self-monitor their symptoms for 14 days and get tested every two or three days.

If they tested positive for Covid, they would be required to isolate for seven to 10 days, depending on staffing conditions. If they tested negative, they would have to return immediately. However, they would also have to isolate themselves at work for 10 days.

With testing capacities in the province currently overwhelmed, this could mean that staff who are asymptomatic but positive end up working in healthcare settings because they have not been able to obtain a test.

During the technical briefing, Dr Yves Jalbert, the medical director of Quebec’s public health protection, said those employees would have to take their coffee and lunch breaks in isolated rooms.

A media spokesperson for the health ministry told the Guardian that in situations where the worker had to be near uninfected colleagues or patients, personal protective equipment (PPE) would be required.

This new contingency plan applies to healthcare workers – along with other essential service staff such as first responders – who have had at least two vaccine doses.

Meanwhile, asymptomatic employees who have Covid in their household or who are in regular contact with an infected person will be required to isolate for seven days, regardless of their vaccination status.

However, double-vaccinated workers could be recalled sooner in urgent staffing conditions.

Public health representatives at the technical briefing said 98% of healthcare workers were double-vaccinated.

They said these measures were a last resort to prevent a total healthcare system breakdown. As Dubé noted on Tuesday: “If we had the staff we needed, we wouldn’t have to do this.”

Healthcare unions opposed Quebec’s decision, saying the measures put workers – as well as vulnerable patients – at too much of a risk.

Réjean Leclerc, the president of a union representing 120,000 Quebec healthcare workers, told Reuters that the province couldn’t even keep up with staff testingin the current situation. “The network is not prepared to face the risks of the government’s decision to bring asymptomatic infected staff back to work,” he said.

The government has not clarified how it will help hospitals and other healthcare facilities to create isolation rooms, nor how it would help exposed or infected workers who depend on public transit to get to work.

Other Canadian provinces, including Ontario, are considering whether to follow in Quebec’s footsteps because of healthcare staff shortages across the country.

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