MONTREAL — Vaccinated Quebec health-care workers who test positive for COVID-19 could be allowed back on the job after seven days if they have no symptoms, health officials announced Wednesday, but labour unions said the policy is incoherent and risky.
“It’s like letting a wolf in a sheep barn,” Réjean Leclerc, president of the largest union representing health-care and social services employees in the province, said in an interview. Quebec should be protecting workers not putting them at risk, Leclerc, head of Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux, added.
Officials announced the new policy during a technical briefing with reporters, a day after Health Minister Christian Dubé said that isolation time for health-care staff would be reduced from the standard 10 days to avoid a breakdown in services.
In emergency situations, health-care staff could return to work after seven days of isolation if they are asymptomatic and vaccinated with at least two doses, officials said. Vaccinated workers who are exposed to COVID-19 outside their homes no longer need to isolate, they added. Health-care staff who are exposed to a positive case at home, however, are asked to isolate for seven days.
Leclerc said the plan is incoherent compared with every other measure the government has been pushing during the pandemic.
“The messages are contradictory,” he said. “If positive people are asked to isolate, how do you justify that health-care workers don’t need to?”
Leclerc said the new policy is too risky. Allowing COVID-19-positive workers out of isolation before 10 days will increase transmission of the novel coronavirus in places such as public transport and inside hospital hallways and cafeterias.
Officials also announced a new isolation policy for non-health-care essential workers, such as police officers, firefighters and snow-removal workers. They said if service disruptions are imminent, asymptomatic essential workers could be called back to work six days after testing positive for COVID-19.
Dr. Richard Massé, a strategic adviser at the Health Department, told reporters Wednesday the government didn’t create a list of all essential workers, adding that it was up to employers to decide whether their employees were subject to the new guidance.
“To avoid disruptions of services, people in charge are the best equipped to judge of the pertinence and obligation to maintain the services,” he said.
Massé said the government wasn’t able to measure the impact of the new policy on COVID-19 transmission. “We are calling upon civility and good judgment to be able to manage the crisis,” he said.
Another major union representing health-care workers, Alliance du personnel professionnel et technique de la santé et des services sociaux, said it was disappointing they weren’t consulted on the new policy.
“It’s the worst measure they could have taken,” union president Robert Comeau said. “The solution is extreme.”
Comeau urged the government to rethink the measures, adding that he fears they will put too much pressure on the system and push health-care staff to quit.
Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious diseases expert at the McGill University Health Centre, said the decision shows the desperation Quebec is facing during the latest wave.
“This is another wake-up call, hopefully, to the government to make them realize that once again we are telling you that the health-care system is grossly understaffed,” Vinh said. “And that should be a primary priority for their agenda in the next little while.”
Meanwhile, Quebec on Wednesday continued to break records in new daily COVID-19 cases.
Health officials reported 13,149 new infections and 10 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus. They said COVID-19-related hospitalizations rose by 102 compared with the prior day, to 804, after 179 people entered hospital and 77 were discharged. There were 122 people in intensive care, a rise of seven patients.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Dec. 29, 2021.
Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press