MONTREAL (Reuters) - Canada is sending in the army starting Saturday to help alleviate staffing shortages in Quebec’s care facilities for seniors, as the province grapples with the country’s highest death rate from the coronavirus.
Like the United States and Europe, Canada is struggling to curb the spread of the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease in nursing homes.
Conditions in Quebec’s private and public long-term care homes have worsened due to a chronic staff shortage and, critics said, a 2015 restructuring of the sector that led to reduced local oversight.
The military will deploy 125 soldiers with medical training to nursing homes in the province, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday. Quebec is the epicenter of Canada’s coronavirus outbreak, with more than half of the country’s 30,670 cases and its 1,250 deaths.
Seniors in homes account for 70% of the province’s 688 COVID-19 deaths, with double-digit death tolls reported at multiple facilities.
In addition to existing equipment and staff shortages, the cost-cutting reform of Quebec’s health sector in 2015 reduced local managers, some of whom had experience with elder care, a former provincial health minister said.
“In my view, we were better equipped before 2015 to deal with this crisis,” said Rejean Hebert, who held office from 2012-2014.
A spokesman for Quebec’s current health minister declined to comment on the reform by a previous government, saying his department was focused on confronting the “health crisis.”
The province is also signing up 2,000 doctors from hospitals to alleviate the shortage of a similar number of care home staff, some of whom are out sick.
“We are going through a very tough period in the long-term care facilities, but we are in solution mode,” Quebec Premier Francois Legault said on Friday.
The manager of one Montreal care facility recently locked staff inside the residence after their shift ended to compel them to work overtime because he lacked workers, said Alain Croteau, president of the local union representing the staff.
The Montreal-area home’s administrator told Radio Canada that such actions were unusual, but the manager couldn’t leave the elderly residents alone and there was no other way to keep the workers there.
“The long-term care facilities weren’t prepared for this,” said nurse Natalie Stake-Doucet, who just joined a Montreal home where around 100 residents have tested positive for coronavirus. “I’ve been there for two days and I’ve already been asked to work overtime six times.”
A 2018 provincial nursing union survey showed a single nurse was assigned, on average, to 30 patients by day in long-term care facilities. The union, which is calling for a minimum staffing ratio, contrasted that with the Australian state of Victoria, where a two-person team is assigned 14 patients each.
With some nurses and orderlies working part-time at more than one facility, they could be contracting the virus and spreading it themselves: At least 1,100 nursing home workers have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in Quebec, more than double the nearest provincial number, according to government data.
An outbreak at the Lafleche facility in Shawinigan, Quebec, that caused at least 31 deaths and reportedly infected 74% of residents and 65% of staff, started with a single orderly who only had access to two masks per shift, local health and union officials said.
Pascal Bastarache, who represents unionized workers at Lafleche, said there’s been an increase in staff movement between facilities following the 2015 reform.
Lafleche staff only stopped the practice of moving its staff between different care homes this week, a local health official said.
Additional reporting by Moira Warburton in Toronto; Editing by Aurora Ellis