Quebec is trying to reassure people between the ages of 60 and 69 that it is safe to go back to work at schools and daycares – a week after telling them to stay home.
Reopening schools and daycares is a major component of Quebec’s COVID-19 recovery strategy, as parents across the province gradually return to work in the retail, construction and manufacturing sectors.
But Quebec authorities have been sending mixed messages about the risk factors associated with age and complications from the novel coronavirus.
Just last week, the health and family ministers, along with Dr. Horacio Arruda, director of public health, issued a directive to workers in the province’s daycare network. It said workers who are pregnant, who have a chronic illness or who are over 60 years old should not return to work.
The opposition Parti Quebecois says the memo was issued on April. 28.
On Wednesday, facing potential staffing shortages and overcrowding in schools and daycares, the government changed course.
“Public health authorities tell us that before the age of 70, it is possible to return to work without significant risk,” deputy premier Genevieve Guilbault told reporters in Quebec City. “All Quebec employers are asked to take this into account.”
She said she understood that certain teachers were anxious about returning to work next Monday when daycares and elementary schools open outside the greater Montreal area. Schools and daycares in Montreal are scheduled to reopen a week later.
A major federation representing teacher and daycare worker unions, the Centrale des syndicats du Quebec, said Wednesday “there is an urgent need for consistency” from the government.
Federation president Sonia Ethier said in a statement that “the government is squandering its efforts with instructions that no longer make sense to anyone.” She noted the government made the change following news reports of a potential shortage of staff when schools and daycares open next week.
“Are labour needs now taking precedence over the peoples’ health?” she asked.
As recently as Monday, Premier Francois Legault told reporters that children shouldn’t come into contact with grandparents older than 60. “If (kids) see people who are more than 60 years old, there is a risk,” he said.
The latest provincial statistics indicate that 8 per cent of people who have died from COVID-19 in the province were aged between 50 and 69.
Legault was not present at Wednesday’s briefing, but Arruda was asked whether the premier’s comments were in contradiction with the new guidelines.
“People will be wearing masks in daycares,” he responded, adding there will also be physical distancing directives in place. “And let’s be clear, we are talking about people who are healthy. If people have particular health conditions, it’s not the same thing.”
He said worker with underlying health conditions should stay home.
Earlier Wednesday, Families Minister Mathieu Lacombe sowed confusion when he encouraged parents to keep their kids at home so that the daycare network isn’t overcrowded.
During a debate with the opposition via video-conference, Lacombe said that since daycares will begin operating next week at 30 per cent capacity, parents should consider asking someone they know to watch their kids at home.
Asked whether grandparents could take on that role – if they wear a mask – Lacombe said: “that depends on their age.”
Parti Quebecois education and families critic Veronique Hivon said the government has resorted to calling on anyone to supervise children, “while at the same time public health authorities are telling us not to have people over – especially grandparents, who we’ve been trying to protect for weeks.”
Quebec reported an additional 112 COVID-19 deaths today, bringing the total to 2,510. The total number of cases has risen to 34,327, an increase of 910 from the previous day. Of those cases, 8,284 are classified as recovered.
There are 1,840 people in hospital, including 213 in intensive care.
Some of the people hospitalized for COVID-19 don’t need to be there, Health Minister Danielle McCann told reporters.
Those patients, she said, are still in hospital because authorities don’t want to send them back to places such as long-term care homes, many of which are struggling with COVID-19 outbreaks and are understaffed.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.