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Quebec City residents were asked Tuesday to avoid unnecessary trips to five emergency rooms struggling with staff shortages and overcrowding.

The Centre hospitalier universitaire de Quebec said that sustained high patient volumes combined with staffing challenges have created a “critical situation” in its five hospital ERs.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 548 health-care workers were absent due to COVID-19, Michele Schaffner-Junius, a spokeswoman for the hospital network, said in an e-mail, adding that the number of health workers was already reduced because of vacations.

“The absenteeism rate due to the virus is proportionally one of the highest we have experienced,” Schaffner-Junius said. The number of ambulatory patients arriving at the network’s emergency rooms has also risen, she added.

“This increase is primarily due to a significant increase in emergency room visits for multifactorial respiratory problems, on both the adult side and pediatric, which is quite unusual for this time of year,” Schaffner-Junius said. “Over the past few weeks, our emergency rooms have had stretcher occupancy rates of above 150 per cent.”

Health-care workers who are COVID-19-positive are being asked to return to work after six days in isolation if their condition permits, she said, in an effort to maintain care levels and limit the use of mandatory overtime.

Patients are being asked to avoid the emergency rooms unless they need critical care and to instead consult a clinic, a pharmacist or call the province’s 811 health hotline. The hospitals in question are the CHUL et Centre mere-enfant Soleil, Hopital de l’Enfant-Jesus, Hopital du Saint-Sacrement, Hopital Saint-Francois d’Assise and Hotel-Dieu de Quebec.

The notice to avoid ERs came as hospitals across the province struggle to maintain emergency services and are being forced to partially close or redirect patients elsewhere.

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