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Quebec will use paramedics in indoor settings to ease health-care staff shortage

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CHATEAUGUAY, Que. -

Quebec paramedics will be asked to help out in indoor settings, such as care homes and hospitals, in order to ease the critical staff shortage in the health-care system.

The project is starting small, with just 20 workers in the region of Monteregie, on Montreal's South Shore, said Quebec Health Minister Christian Dube in a press conference Monday.

It will also be voluntary, with the paramedics given the option to change their regular schedules for backup shifts, especially in hospital urgent care.

However, the model is already official: government passed a decree Monday to begin the model, Dube said. The first paramedics involved will shift into hospitals next Sunday.

The idea came out of a meeting Dube had with a paramedics' group in the South Shore, he said.

"I had the chance to meet some paramedics," he said, and "they know the terrain" of their own jobs.

The conversation made him ask himself why paramedics weren't brought in to help in other settings earlier in the pandemic, he said.

There are "things they're permitted to do inside their vehicle, which they're not permitted to do inside, for example, a CHSLD [public long-term care home]," he said.

"They have all the training... I asked myself, why haven't we been doing this?"

TAPPING INTO A WORKFORCE 6,000 STRONG

COVID-19 daily case count and hospitalization count has been a little lower in the last few days than throughout September, Dube noted, but it's too early to feel secure -- and Quebec is still contending with a shortage of 4,000 nurses.

"We need to be creative," he said.

There are about 6,000 paramedics across Quebec, Dubé said.

Paramedics themselves are in favour of the idea, at least in Monteregie, said the director of the paramedics' cooperative in that region, Martin Benoit.

They "want to help their peers" in the beleaguered hospitals, he said.

The option will be given based on seniority as well as volunteerism. So far, the 20 paramedics stepping forward from Monteregie Centre and Monteregie Ouest can be spared, with their colleagues handling their normal work, Benoit said.

What kind of tasks they'll be given in the hospitals isn't clear yet and will be determined in a day-by-day basis, he said.

The plan is to split more work up among doctors, nurses and paramedics so that doctors and nurses have more time to go about the tasks they're specially trained for.

"I can't give you the daily breakdown -- who's going to be filling out patient charts and who's going to be giving medication," for example, Benoit said.

As for how the program might spread to the rest of Quebec, that also remains to be seen after testing how smooth the shared workflow is in Monteregie -- and whether paramedics' groups elsewhere step forward, Benoit said, calling it a "local-level" initiative.

"Now, the timing is one thing, the availability of those professionals... but I think that if we were to get a little bit in each of our 'assistant shoes,' that will be a tremendous help," he said.

NURSE VACCINE DECREE KICKING IN VERY SOON

The move is the latest of several the province has made to retain existing nurses in the public system and to try to lure back some who switched to the private system under the strain of COVID-19.

The problem is about to get even worse when the vaccination decree kicks in on Oct. 15.

At that point, any nurse who's not fully vaccinated will be suspended without pay, and Dube said last week that about 7,000 front-line health workers appear to be in that group, as well as about 8,000 not on the front lines.

On top of $15,000 bonuses for public-system nurses, the province is also trying to make their working conditions a little better, with many saying for the last year that they're cracking under the strain.

Dube said he hopes the paramedic backup will help with that, by "making people feel like working."

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