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Quebec Premier Francois Legault responds to questions during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, at the legislature, in Quebec City, on April 15, 2020.

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Quebec expanded its push to fill staffing shortages at nursing homes ravaged by COVID-19 Thursday, taking the unusual step of calling on the military to join in the effort.

The province’s doctors answered a plea made Wednesday for help on the front lines, and Premier Francois Legault confirmed he has also asked Ottawa for Canadian Forces help.

Legault said about 2,000 doctors signed up to provide basic care to the elderly, but he noted that not all of them would be deployed at once. He acknowledged some growing pains are to be expected when integrating the highly paid physicians into the system.

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“Obviously, it’s going to be a big challenge to have everyone work together, people who are not used to working together,” Legault said of the new dynamic, but he invited everyone to be ready to make concessions.

“It will not necessarily be easy, especially in conditions that are really exceptional. But, I am convinced that with good faith ... we will be able to have these people work together,” he said.

Some doctors would only be available a few days a week while others wouldn’t be able to help until later this year, but Legault indicated the need was a national emergency and everything helps.

Quebec’s scramble for resources came as the province announced its biggest daily jump yet in reported deaths – 143 more, bringing the total to 630. Legault explained most of the deaths did not occur in the past 24 hours but have been added to the list following a change in data collecting methods as well as post-mortem investigations.

Ninety per cent of COVID-19 deaths registered in the province involve victims 70 and older, and 70 per cent of all deaths reported are in long-term care and seniors homes.

Quebec has already sought federal military aid twice, and Canadian Rangers are helping with the COVID-19 effort in Quebec’s far north and in the Lower North Shore region, but this time it is looking for skills needed in nursing homes.

Legault said he believes there are between 60 and 100 military members who have the training required.

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The federal government said it was in talks with Quebec about what support could be sent to the province, while leaving the door open to alternatives other than the military to fill the gap.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested during his daily news conference in Ottawa that the Canadian Red Cross or some of the roughly 30,000 Canadians with medical training who have registered with Health Canada as potential volunteers could be tapped to assist instead.

“Our Armed Forces certainly have doctors, but they do not have that many,” Trudeau said while noting that Quebec’s request for help in long-term care facilities is very different from the assistance usually requested by provinces.

“When the time comes to help with floods, the Armed Forces have the ability and are trained to help in these situations. This is a new situation. So we are talking with Quebec to figure out how we can help, but we will be there to help. We understand how important it is for everyone.”

The details of Quebec’s request remained murky, despite repeated questions to federal ministers for details.

“We agree that this is an absolutely urgent situation,” Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said. “We don’t have details to offer at this moment on personnel or tasks, because those need to be worked out. But they are being worked out right now.”

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While the situation in long-term care homes is deemed critical, Legault said the number of patients requiring hospitalization is under control. Of the 1,018 COVID-19 patients in hospital, 209 were in intensive care – nine fewer than Wednesday.

The province also reported nearly 1,000 new confirmed cases, bringing the total to 15,857 – more than half of all cases in Canada.

Roughly 2,000 workers are off the job in public and private nursing homes. Some have tested positive for COVID-19 and others fear being infected.

The province reached a deal with federations representing doctors, with specialists being paid $211 an hour to assist nurses and orderlies to provide basic care – feeding and bathing patients and administering medications.

As doctors began heading to long-term care centres, the first report of a Quebec doctor dying from COVID-19 emerged.

The Canadian Medical Association identified the physician as Dr. Huy-Hao Dao and expressed its condolences.

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“The medical community is mourning the loss of one our own, while also acknowledging all those who have passed away across the country and around the world,” association president Dr. Sandy Buchman said in a statement.

“It reminds us that the virus is a serious one and that we cannot underestimate the importance of public health measures.

“We continue to extend our appreciation to all the health care workers providing care on the front lines, your heroic efforts do not go unnoticed and are tremendously appreciated by all Canadians.”

Cogeco Nouvelles reported the 44-year-old physician had worked in community medicine in the Monteregie region south of Montreal.

Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s director of public health, said the doctor did not contract COVID-19 while providing care to patients, but for privacy reasons he declined to go into specifics.

“This health worker didn’t work in, I would say, hospitals or long-term care facilities. He got the disease somewhere else,” he said.

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