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A major union representing public sector workers says it’s open to temporarily transferring members to help out in the overburdened health system, but it says it wasn’t given enough notice and is facing labour shortages of its own.

The Quebec government is looking for public sector workers to temporarily fill more than 2,000 health-care service aide positions, the Health Department said Monday.

But the government only made its request on Friday, said Christian Daigle, president of the Syndicat de la fonction publique et parapublique du Quebec, adding that workers had until Monday evening to show interest.

“They could have shown a little more foresight,” Daigle said in an interview Monday.

Quebec’s health-care system is struggling to care for a still-growing number of COVID-19 patients. Last week, Health Minister Christian Dube told reporters that 15,000 health-care workers were unable to work because they had COVID-19 or were in preventive isolation. He previously said that thousands more were off the job for other reasons, including burnout.

As of Monday afternoon, nine of Quebec’s 18 regions had hit or exceeded the highest level of capacity envisaged in the provincial government’s pandemic planning.

The health authority in eastern Montreal, where 240 of 640 beds are currently occupied by patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, said it’s now having to reduce services more than had been foreseen in the Health Department’s worst-case scenario

Christian Merciari, a spokesman for the health authority, said surgeries have been reduced by about half compared to before the pandemic, and patients who arrive at hospitals in the area may have to wait in the emergency room for a bed to become available.

“Currently, we are banking heavily on the potential impact of the measures announced by the (Health Department) to increase the availability of labour and therefore the stabilization of teams in several crucial sectors,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The Health Department said Monday the public sector workers are needed to perform a variety of tasks in long-term care centres, rehabilitation centres and other facilities. Those tasks include ensuring patients are hydrated, serving food, restocking supplies and changing bed sheets.

“Service aides are people who don’t have specific clinical training, but who can help clinical staff provide basic patient care and contribute to logistical tasks,” Health Department spokeswoman Marjorie Larouche said in an e-mail.

More than 500 public sector workers were transferred to the health-care system last spring and provided clinical and administrative support to the province’s vaccination campaign, she added.

Daigle said the union has been told that government workers who accept the offer would be freed from their usual duties and could receive a COVID-19 bonus.

During an appearance Sunday on the Quebec talk show “Tout le monde en parle,” Premier Francois Legault said the province has put in place “fast-track training programs” intended to add thousands of administrative staff to the health-care system. But he said it would take “a few weeks to have them trained.”

“In the meantime, we are asking bureaucrats to go and occupy those positions to take more of the nurses’ administrative duties, so that nurses can concentrate on caring for patients,” he said.

Daigle said the union isn’t opposed to the idea, but he said he’s not sure how many workers would be interested. He said many of the union’s members, including those who clear snow on highways and who handle telecommunications for provincial police and courthouse staff, are already in essential roles and couldn’t move to the Health Department even if they wanted to.

“Currently, even in other departments, there’s a shortage of staff,” he said. “I am understaffed compared to what I should have in a good number of departments and agencies and they’re asking me to send more people to the health-care system.”

Earlier Monday, Quebec reported 54 more deaths attributed to the novel coronavirus and a rise of 81 COVID-19-related hospitalizations. The Health Department said 3,381 people were in hospital with the disease, after 303 patients were admitted within the previous 24 hours and 222 were discharged. It said 286 people were in intensive care, a rise of four from the day before.

Officials reported 5,400 new cases of COVID-19 Monday after conducting more than 35,800 tests, about 13 per cent of which came back positive.

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