May 29, 2020 / 2:51 PM / 2 months ago

In Canada's COVID-19 capital, bone-weary nurses plead for summer break

MONTREAL (Reuters) - Quebec nurses and orderlies are pleading for time off this summer, ahead of a possible second wave of coronavirus infections in the fall, as Canada’s hardest-hit province from the virus wrestles with a staffing crunch in its health sector.

Healthcare workers, professionals and unions demanding safer working conditions and time off amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, protest in front of Santa Cabrini Hospital in Montreal, Quebec, Canada May 29, 2020. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

Bone-weary staff chanted “give us vacation,” and waved placards warning “the guardian angels are dead tired,” as music blared on speakers outside Montreal’s Santa Cabrini Hospital on Friday, echoing similar protests across Quebec this week.

Premier Francois Legault has said Quebec is short 10,000 healthcare workers, and is trying to recruit that number of orderlies through a three-month paid training plan.

Quebec, which has around 60% of Canada’s 6,900 deaths from the virus, has asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to extend a spring military deployment to September to bolster staffing at its hard-hit nursing homes where most COVID deaths have taken place.

Like the United States, Canada is struggling to curb the spread of the coronavirus and the respiratory illness COVID-19 in seniors’ residences.

Front-line hospital workers say they are also exhausted.

Intensive care nurse Celine Magnaux, 33, said at the protest she had days to help train less-experienced nurses because of a staff shortage.

“They had to bring inexperienced nurses who never worked in intensive care before to give us a hand because we couldn’t handle all these patients by ourselves,” she said.

“It’s been 15 weeks that we’ve been working like crazy with COVID cases.”

A second nurse who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals from his employer said he was so exhausted from working non-stop with COVID patients he was considering leaving his profession.

“The burnout is coming,” he said. “Without vacation, break, we are headed there.”

Some nurses who treat COVID patients have had requests for spring vacation time delayed so they really need time in the summer, said Johanne Riendeau, a union local president representing nurses and other health sector workers in the west of Montreal.

Around 5,000 healthcare workers are infected with the virus.

Quebec Health Minister Danielle McCann has said the province aims to give healthcare workers two weeks of vacation in the summer. “It’s going to be very important that these people are well rested to return in the fall, to help us,” she said.

But union representatives said not all nurses and orderlies in Montreal have received clear answers to their summer vacation requests.

Slideshow (10 Images)

“We don’t believe McCann anymore,” Riendeau said.

About 13% of Quebec’s 2,600 seniors’ homes and long-term care facilities have at least one case of coronavirus.

Trudeau told reporters on Thursday that his government would continue discussions with Quebec over support for nursing homes, but stressed the deployment “is not a long-term solution.”

Reporting By Allison Lampert and Sebastien Malo in Montreal; Additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson in Ottawa; Editing by Denny Thomas, Andrea Ricci and David Gregorio

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