Quebec expands booster eligibility, will let some COVID-positive health-care staff keep working

Quebec health-care workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 will keep working under certain conditions, Health Minister Christian Dubé announced Tuesday.

The decision comes as Quebec continues to battle with an exponential increase in daily COVID-19 case numbers fuelled by the Omicron variant. The latest data show around 7,000 workers have been removed from their posts so far and that number could reach 10,000 in the coming days, Dubé said.

“Under the circumstances, you’ll understand that we prefer to have an employee we would have removed work — as long as we do it under certain conditions — to avoid a reduction in services,” he said.

The conditions under which health-care staff will be permitted to work while infected, which Dubé said will depend on priority and risk management, will be announced in the coming days. Decisions will be made “case by case, region by region, hospital by hospital, CHSLD by CHSLD.”

“If we had the staff we needed, we wouldn’t have to implement this measure,” Dubé said. “Our priority will always remain the same, it’s to care for Quebecers who need it.”

He attributed Quebec’s ability to “change paradigms” surrounding infected workers to a vaccination rate of 98 per cent among them. Many health-care workers have also received their boosters, Dubé said.

Another outbreak at Lakeshore

On Tuesday, the CIUSSS de l’Ouest-de-l’Île-de-Montréal said 200 of its 14,000 employees are currently in preventive isolation due to contagion from outside the health network.

“The rapid transmission of the virus in the community is not sparing health-care workers or their families,” said West Island public health spokesperson Annie Charbonneau.

The Lakeshore General Hospital, which is overseen by the West Island health authority, has also reported another outbreak of COVID-19 on its premises, the second since last Thursday.

Charbonneau said on Monday evening that while last Thursday’s outbreak was under control, “in the past few hours, a new outbreak has been confirmed in a different unit and fewer than five patients are affected.”

Booster dose calendar

On Tuesday, Quebec also announced new groups will become eligible for booster shots as of Wednesday, including school staff, community health and social service groups, public security workers, food inspectors, slaughterhouse workers, private-sector health workers and other health workers (such as palliative care or social economy companies providing home services).

The general population below the age of 60 will be able to book boosters between Jan. 4 and Jan. 21 depending on their age, according to the following schedule:

  • Jan. 4: Ages 55-59
  • Jan. 6: Ages 50-54
  • Jan. 10: Ages 45-49
  • Jan. 12: Ages 40-44
  • Jan. 14: Ages 35-39
  • Jan. 17: Ages 30-34
  • Jan. 19: Ages 25-29
  • Jan. 21: Ages 18 and older

Quebec wants to vaccinate two to three million people per month, “which would bring us to March to have vaccinated the entire population,” Dubé said.

Union decries “poor management”

Dubé said the Health Ministry met with health-care unions and associations ahead of Tuesday’s announcement. In a statement, Quebec’s largest union representing health-care workers, the Fédération de la santé et des services sociaux (FSSS-CSN), said it fears the new measure could put more workers at risk.

The union instead called on the government to implement measures such as staff screening, limiting workers moving between centres and improving ventilation.

“The network is not prepared to deal with the risks of the government’s decision to bring asymptomatic infected staff back to work,” union president Réjean Leclerc said in a statement. “The poor management of the pandemic is once again putting the network’s staff at risk and therefore patients at risk.”

12,833 new cases

Quebec reported a record 12,833 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday as the seven-day rolling average of infections reached an all-time high of 9,133.

The province also reported another 15 deaths, for a total of 11,692 since the start of the pandemic.

Hospitalizations linked to COVID-19 in Quebec reached 702 on Tuesday, an increase of 88 and the highest level since April, more than tripling in the last month. Of those in hospital, 115 are in intensive care — an increase of six.

Dubé said that while hospitalizations are on the rise, ICU numbers appear to be lower in proportion to hospitalizations when compared with previous waves.

“Will this tendency maintain itself?” he said. “That would be very good news.”

Dubé said Quebec won’t hesitate to add public health restrictions in the coming days if necessary. The main indicator the province is observing is hospitalizations and intensive-care admissions.

While officials have said daily COVID-19 case numbers are currently underestimated due to the use of rapid tests, public health director Dr. Horacio Arruda said the province is still able to anticipate trends in hospitalizations.

“Whether it’s 12,000 (cases) or 20,000, it’s the same message,” Arruda said. “What’s important for us is to see the impact on hospitals and intensive care.”

Dubé said the province is looking at the possibility of providing Quebecers with the ability to self-report positive rapid test results, but “we have a lot of people who are occupied by other things at the moment.”

“If we think it’s the right thing to do to have better statistics we’ll do it,” he said. “But there may be other priorities.”

He added around 8,000 of Tuesday’s 12,833 cases were among the unvaccinated.

“That means those are people who are going to hospital, those are people going to intensive care,” Dubé said. “If the tendency is maintained, all the unvaccinated over the next few months will either get vaccinated — which would be the right thing to do — or they will get sick.”

“It’s for them to decide which side they want to find themselves on.”

kthomas@postmedia.com

twitter.com/katelynthomas

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