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COVID-19-related hospitalizations in Quebec rose by nine per cent on Friday, pushing hospitals to cancel more surgeries and leaving doctors worried about the impact on patients forced to live with pain.

Health officials reported 27 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus and said there were 2,133 patients hospitalized with the disease – 180 more than the prior day, a 9.2 per cent increase. A total of 229 people were in intensive care, a rise of 22.

Coupled with the fast-rising number of patients, about 20,000 health-care workers across the province were off the job isolating because they had either contracted the virus or had been exposed to it. At least three regions – Monteregie-Est, Estrie and Mauricie – were at the highest level of the province’s service reduction plan on Thursday, with several more on the cusp of following suit.

On Friday, the health authority for Monteregie-Est, in the province’s southwest, said it was only able to carry out 30 per cent of its usual number of scheduled surgeries. A spokesperson said in an e-mail that the health agency was doing what it could to maintain surgeries in the absence of 900 health workers who were off the job for COVID-19-related reasons, including by asking doctors to fill in for nurses.

Dr. Stephane Tremblay, general director of the health authority in Quebec’s Estrie region, located east of Montreal, told a news conference Friday that the fifth wave of COVID-19 in the province is “very different than what we saw before.”

Tremblay said health professionals are seeing a rising number of patients who are sick with COVID-19, but they are also treating a growing number of people who come to the hospital for other reasons but test positive on arrival. As a result of widespread transmission, he said, the health authority is increasingly treating non-urgent COVID-19-positive patients “where they are,” instead of transferring them to designated hospitals.

That means people in long-term care homes or maternity wards who test positive will remain in place, unless they need emergency care, he explained. He said hospitals across the region are only conducting about 50 per cent of their usual surgeries because of the COVID-19 situation, but he stressed that the region isn’t at the point of having to ration emergency care.

Dr. Liane Feldman, director of surgery at the McGill University Health Centre, said the teaching hospital has been forced to make tough choices on which patients to prioritize for surgery. “There’s no question that we can’t do all of our normal activities and have the capacity to take care of all the patients with COVID, that’s certainly not debatable,” she said Friday in an interview.

Feldman said the decision about which scheduled surgeries to postpone is made by a committee composed of division chiefs and program directors, in consultation with medical specialists. Emergency surgeries and procedures have not been impacted by the pandemic, she said.

While many of the cancelled surgeries are considered “non-urgent,” such as knee and hip replacements, Feldman said it would be wrong to minimize the impact of the cancellations.

“I’m worried about the thousands in our own hospital, tens of thousands in our province and hundreds of thousands in our country of patients whose surgery has been postponed over and over again, delayed, postponed, cancelled,” she said. “They need their operations, they’re living in pain.”

The Health Department said Friday that 99,186 vaccine doses were administered in the past 24 hours. While most of the vaccines being given are boosters, Quebec’s health minister said Friday on Twitter there has also been a notable rise in the number of people seeking a first dose. Christian Dube said more than 6,000 people booked appointments Thursday for first doses, while the daily average a few days ago was about 1,500 appointments.

The province reported 16,176 new cases of COVID-19 Friday. Health authorities have acknowledged that the daily total is an undercount due to the limited availability of testing.

With files from Jacob Serebrin.

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