Protesting nurses warn they’re ‘dead tired’ and can’t face a second wave without time off

MONTREAL — Dozens of nurses staged a camp-out demonstration on Wednesday with a simple message: they need a break.

“We are really, really tired,” Katherine Bertrand, who represents many health-care workers in northern Montreal with the FIQ union.

“We’ve been there since the beginning of the pandemic and we need some rest.”

Their protest, in front of an Ahuntsic-Cartierville long-term care home, was one of three planned across the Montreal region around the issue of vacations. Protests began earlier this month.

Nurses said they will need more than the two weeks the province says it is “aiming for” if they want to stay in decent shape for a potential second wave of COVID-19 infections.

It has been a week of taking stock of health-care workers’ reserves after two-and-a-half months of the pandemic.

As Quebec and the rest of Canada reopen their economies, health-care workers everywhere are waiting to see if this does lead to a second wave.

In the meantime, many workers had their experiences vindicted by new reports, including one by the military describing what its soldiers saw after going to help in 25 long-term care homes in the Montreal area.

That report, released Wednesday by the province, described understaffed homes with a risky system of movement between hot and cold zones, and “a lack of medical equipment” that made it hard for staff to do their jobs safely. 

Some homes were running more smoothly than others, the Armed Forces reported. The report wasn’t as devastating—or perhaps as much of a shock—as a similar report released a day earlier in Ontario, which described a catastrophic situation at many of that province’s care homes. 

It prompted Ontario Premier Doug Ford to announce that the province would take over management of five care homes, in addition to the two that had already come under provincial management since the beginning of the pandemic.

The military’s findings from Quebec sounded familiar to people working in the local health-care field, but they still said it was helpful to hear it all said in plain language.

“There was nothing really new in the report, contrary to what we saw in Ontario,” said patients’ rights advocate Paul Brunet.

“What I liked about it is the tone and the words used… it wasn’t bureaucratic, it wasn’t [a] university expert, it was really what happened on the floor.”

For some staff, hearing it spelled out was heartbreaking. A woman named Nancy Newton died at the Vigi Queen Elizabeth in April, before the army arrived to help.

Her caregiver, Gisele Vanloo, says Newton didn’t die of COVID-19, and she believes that if there had been more staffing earlier, to ease the pressure, Newton may still be alive. 

A report can’t fix all the damage that’s been done, said Vanloo.

“It’s too late,” she said. “I just hope there aren’t any more unnecessary deaths.”

On Tuesday, Quebec’s ombudsperson announced there would be an official investigation into how the pandemic was handled at long-term care homes.

But despite all the planning for the future, nurses say that right now they’re simply exhausted and need a vacation.

Nurses have been barred from taking vacations since the pandemic hit Montreal in mid-March, their unions say. It’s damaging morale, the unions say, but is also creating a real risk of burnout.

“They’re exhausted and they have to have rest,” said Alexandre Paquet, the interim president of the CSN union representing workers in the Montreal North health region.

“We need vacation, and our bosses aren’t sure we’re going to have it.”

The unions say the province is willing to allow a partial break of up to two weeks, which they say is not enough at this point. 

Quebec’s health minister, Danielle McCann, says the government’s priority is having enough staff as it prepares for a second wave. So for now, it can only allow two weeks’ break per person.

David Routhier, a local representative of another union representing health-care workers, the APTS, said the situation has improved to the point where refusing holidays or to postponing vacations isn’t justified.

“There are fewer and fewer residents who are sick, and fewer and fewer employees are absent,” Routhier said.

“We are aiming for a two-week vacation for everyone,” McCann said in Quebec City. “That will be important so that people are more rested to come back in the fall to help us.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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