It’s been over a month on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19 for Julia, a speech language pathologist in west end Montreal. The army is withdrawing soldiers deployed to the long-term care home where she’s working, but for her, there’s no end in sight.
In late April, Julia was one of about 1,300 “involuntary deployments” — people in health-care-related fields conscripted to work in long-term care homes to make up for a critical shortage of staff as the pandemic ripped through them. Nearly 5,000 Quebecers have now died of COVID-19, 68 per cent of them residents of long-term care institutions, known as CHSLDs.
Now as spring turns to summer and Julia sweats through her protective gear in the facility where she is forced to work, she wonders when she’ll be able to go back to the job she loves and is trained to do.
“I think about quitting every day, and I don’t think I’m the only one,” she said.
Speech therapists, physiotherapists, social workers and psychologists are among those reassigned to work as aides to patient attendants by regional health authorities in Montreal and Laval.
Some, exhausted and burnt out, are now questioning their future in the Quebec health-care system.
CBC News spoke with two employees, Julia and Rita, who are in this situation. We are withholding their identities because they fear professional repercussions for speaking out.
The deployments are overseen by the individual regional health boards. Some of them, including the CISSS de Laval, CIUSSS du Nord-de-l’Île-de-Montréal and CIUSSS du Centre-Sud-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, plan to reintegrate staff back into their regular jobs in the coming weeks.
But others, including the health agencies responsible for the West Island, West-Central Montreal and the eastern part of the Island of Montreal, say those workers are still needed in long-term care homes.
Conditions have improved in the CHSLD where Julia has been assigned to work. The COVID situation has stabilized, and she’s developed relationships with her patients.
But recently, some of her colleagues at the CIUSSS Centre-Ouest Montréal, redeployed like she is, received a schedule for rotations at long-term care homes that goes into 2021.
CBC News has seen the schedule, which would see physiotherapists, occupational therapists, psychologists and kinesiologists continuing to work in COVID-ridden institutions, including Maimonides Geriatric Centre and the Jewish Eldercare Centre, until early January.
Seeing those schedules, morale plummeted, Julia said.
“Honestly, I think that the whole rehab sector is going to be completely destroyed,” she said.
“I do think a lot of people are going to leave,” said Julia. That threat aside, she worries about the long-term effects on physiotherapy or speech pathology patients, when so many of those therapists will be working in long-term care homes for months to come.
‘Difficult to predict’ need for staff
Julia’s employer, the CIUSSS Centre-Ouest Montréal, could not confirm the existence of schedules stretching into January but said in a statement that it’s “very difficult to predict how the situation will evolve.”
“We anticipate a potential second wave of the pandemic in the fall,” said spokesperson Jennifer Timmons. “However, we must also plan for the gradual return of services in our other sites appropriately.”
Rita, a social worker in Montreal’s east end, is now on stress leave from her mandatory deployment to a CHSLD and now plans to leave the field of health care altogether.
She was reassigned in late April to a home which initially had a small infection rate, but the virus spread relentlessly, and by mid-May, she found herself working in a COVID hot zone.
Residents were confined to their rooms, frantic, confused and unable to see their families.
“They were suffering quite a bit,” Rita said. She described witnessing rushed staff trying to feed elderly patients too quickly.
Rita says she’s experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress. By the end of May, she found herself hoping to contract COVID-19. She fantasized about catching it from a resident so she could leave and not come back. She left her job soon after.
“I’m so angry with the situation. I’m so angry at [Quebec Premier François] Legault for cutting our wings, we so-called ‘guardian angels,'” she said.
Her employer, the CIUSSS de l’Est-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, said it is doing its best to support its staff through the crisis.
“We are aware that some workers may have been especially affected by certain situations experienced in CHSLDs and other services,” wrote spokesperson Christian Merciari in a statement.
Spokespeople for both regional health agencies said there are internal mental health programs for staff dealing with trauma.
But the Canadian Union of Public Employees, the union that represents Rita, says it’s hearing similar stories of burnout from many members. CUPE says in Rita’s region alone, there are a dozen complaints from workers who are being forced against their will to work on the front lines of the crisis.
CUPE plans to file complaints with Quebec’s workplace health and safety board, the CNESST. It says people are inadequately trained for the work they’re now doing and were unprepared to be put in situations where they’d be dealing with pandemic casualties.
Julia predicts a “mass exodus” from the health care network unless the situation changes quickly.
If that happens, she says, it would be an ironic result of a policy put in place to try to mitigate the damage of a health-care worker shortage elsewhere in the system.