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Montreal's Jacques Cartier Bridge is seen in a June 21, 2019, file photo.SEBASTIEN ST-JEAN/AFP/Getty Images

Nurses and other health-care workers blocked two major bridges in Montreal and Quebec City Monday, escalating pressure tactics to push the province to address working conditions they say have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quebec continues to report more than 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a day, and Nancy Bedard, president of the Federation interprofessionnelle de la sante du Quebec, said many nurses are taking sick leave, retiring or quitting.

“It was already extremely difficult before the pandemic,” Bedard said in an interview. “(But COVID-19) came and exasperated health-care professionals even further.”

Members of the union, which represents about 76,000 health-care workers, blocked traffic Monday morning on Montreal’s Jacques Cartier Bridge and on the Quebec Bridge in the provincial capital. The union is negotiating a new collective agreement with the province.

The protests came amid growing concerns around whether Quebec’s health-care network will be able to withstand the pressure of a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quebec reported 1,038 new cases of COVID-19 as well as six more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus Monday, bringing the total to 94,429 cases and 6,044 deaths since the pandemic began.

Hospitalizations also increased by five compared with the prior day, for a total of 532, and 92 of those patients were in intensive care, an increase of four.

The effects of the pandemic are being felt in hospitals, long-term care homes and in other health-care facilities across the province, some of which were already struggling with staffing shortages before COVID-19 hit.

Jason Harley, an assistant professor in the department of surgery at McGill University, conducted a survey of 64 nurses and 55 physicians in the McGill University Health Centre network in August, comparing their stress levels before and after the pandemic began.

Harley said the survey, completed with fellow McGill professor Tina Montreuil and funded by the McGill Interdisciplinary Initiative in Infection and Immunity, found significant increases of stress, anxiety, depression and burnout among the workers.

Fifty per cent of nurses and 20 per cent of physicians surveyed were considering quitting, while they said difficulties finding a work-life balance and keeping up with management strategies to manage the pandemic were among their biggest stressors.

“There’s no question that our health-care professionals, they need support,” Harley said.

“It’s critical for our society that … our health-care system, is able to continue to function, especially in this period of time when it’s under extra strain and in turn, the people who are providing us with care are under additional strain.”

Gatineau Hospital in the Outaouais region was forced to temporarily close its intensive care unit last month due to a nursing shortage.

Patrick Guay, president of the local health-care workers' union, said at the time that the closure marked the culmination of months of problems. “If one (nurse) leaves to go eat, that means a single nurse must take care of four patients. It’s unthinkable and unsafe,” he said.

Meanwhile, the health agency for the Quebec City region said in an email Monday it is currently looking to fill 948 jobs across its network.

That includes 172 vacant nursing and 120 auxiliary nursing positions, 66 vacancies in food services and 60 others in housekeeping, spokesman Mathieu Boivin said.

Ahead of their protests on Monday, Quebec health-care workers said they wanted smaller patient-to-caregiver ratios and more stable and complete work teams. Bedard said 1,700 workers have quit since March 1.

“There are people quitting every day,” Bedard said. “The way the government has treated health-care professionals during the pandemic has really been the final straw for many of them.”

Treasury Board President Sonia LeBel said she was “disappointed” the health-care workers chose to protest the way they did, adding that contract talks will continue.

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