Skip to main content

Ambulances are shown outside a hospital amid the global COVID-19 pandemic in Montreal on Dec. 28, 2021. Quebec is working to fend off a breakdown in patient care.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Quebec is planning to allow some health care staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 to return to their duties, as the province works to fend off a breakdown in patient care that might result from thousands of medical employees missing work because of the virus.

Provincial health minister Christian Dubé on Tuesday described the decision as a necessity born of a difficult situation caused by the Omicron variant’s unrestrained spread. The province has not yet revealed the full details of the new policy, but officials say they are considering several measures to prevent the move from leading to more COVID-19 transmission.

“A few days ago we were talking about 4,000 health care workers who were absent,” Mr. Dubé said, speaking in French during a briefing with reporters. “Yesterday it was approximately 7,000, and I think that in the next few days we will reach 10,000 workers who will be absent because of COVID.”

Governments around the world are reworking their COVID-19 strategies as Omicron surges, even among vaccinated individuals.

Provinces introduce new health policies as hospitals brace for Omicron’s spread

COVID-19 cases in Canada top two million as hospitals brace for Omicron wave’s unknowns

In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday relaxed its isolation and quarantine recommendations, prompting Canadian provinces to revisit their own policies. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said his government is considering easing isolation rules for vaccinated people who test positive for the virus.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday that he would not introduce new COVID-19 restrictions in England before the new year – though Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales introduced new measures earlier this week. In Germany, protests against COVID-19 restrictions turned violent on Monday, as demonstrators hurled bottles and fireworks.

In Canada, several provinces set records for new infections Tuesday, including Quebec, which reported 12,833 cases. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 remain below peaks seen in previous waves, though they are climbing in Quebec and Ontario.

Omicron is extremely transmissible, and is causing cases to double every two days in some jurisdictions. In Edmonton and Calgary, one in three people who take polymerase chain reaction COVID-19 tests are now positive for the virus, the Alberta government said Tuesday. Montreal’s most recent positivity rate clocked in at 24 per cent. With so many people infected or exposed to those who are, huge swaths of the population are under orders to stay away from others.

Mr. Dubé said Quebec’s policy of allowing health care staff to return to work even if they are infected would be extended to other essential workers in days to come, under protocols that are still being developed.

Potential revisions to the rules in Quebec include allowing COVID-19-positive health care workers to interact only with patients who have COVID-19, while not permitting those employees to take lunch breaks with colleagues, according to Horacio Arruda, the province’s public health director.

The province is trying to find a way to keep staffing levels high enough to offer patients necessary care, without unduly raising the risk of spreading COVID-19, Mr. Arruda said. To illustrate, he sketched out a hypothetical scenario in which he himself had suffered a heart attack and needed urgent care.

“I want to make sure there are doctors who are going to treat me, because I can die if there is no [staff]. And I would prefer having a cardiologist or an intensivist who is infected doing a good job with me than letting me die from my heart disease.”

Tara Moriarty, an infectious diseases researcher and professor at the University of Toronto’s medical and dentistry faculties, said that, given the shortage of health care workers and the pending surge of hospitalizations, Quebec is out of options. Other provinces, she said, will likely have to follow.

“It is not good,” she said. “But I don’t think we have any choice.”

The alternative to abbreviated isolation and quarantine periods for staff members is to turn ill patients away. “Beds may physically exist, but without people to staff them, there’s nothing we can do,” Ms. Moriarty said.

It is essential that any infected health care professionals returning to work early wear N95 respirator masks to help protect others, she said.

It was unclear how many workers would be able to return under Quebec’s new approach. Mr. Dubé did not answer directly when asked during the briefing, and health ministry communications staff did not respond Tuesday afternoon to a request for clarification.

In a tweet, the head of Quebec nurses’ union FIQ said allowing infected caregivers – even asymptomatic ones – to work in the medical system is “too risky.”

Meanwhile, Ontario said general visitors will no longer be allowed at long-term care homes, save for designated caregivers. The province also halted social day trips for long-term care residents. The changes take effect Thursday and are temporary, the provincial government said.

“Given the high community infection rates we’re seeing with the Omicron variant, the time for more action is now,” Rod Phillips, Ontario’s Minister of Long-Term Care, said in a statement Tuesday. “These new temporary measures will help keep residents safe and help critical staff remain on the job.”

Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta all said they are examining the CDC’s latest recommendation, which shortens isolation time for people with COVID-19 to five days from 10, as long as they are asymptomatic. After coming out of isolation, people should wear masks when around others for five days, the CDC advised. (The agency also adjusted quarantine rules for people who have been exposed to COVID-19, making allowances for vaccination status.)

Mr. Kenney, Alberta’s Premier, said his government may modify isolation rules later this week. Asked what the government is considering, he pointed to a British Columbia policy that requires fully vaccinated residents who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate for at least seven days from the onset of symptoms, compared to Alberta’s 10-day stretch.

Ms. Moriarty, the infectious diseases scientist, believes Canada needs a “circuit breaker” – a two-week period during which interactions outside a person’s household would be limited to essential services only. Premiers have been loath to consider such stringent lockdowns, but Ms. Moriarty said Omicron may force them into it.

“They are going to have to do it. What they are probably going to do is wait until the hospitalizations data are so severe that they can’t not do it,” she said. “But, of course, with exponential spread, that’s way too late.”

With a report from the Associated Press

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.