Quebecers should be careful this holiday season as respiratory viruses are on the rise and emergency rooms grapple with overcrowding, health officials said Tuesday.

Dr. Gilbert Boucher, president of the Association des spécialistes en médecine d’urgence du Québec and an emergency physician at the Montreal Heart Institute, said patients with viruses that can be treated at home should avoid the hospital.

“The next few weeks will be difficult in our ERs,” Boucher said. “We need everyone to do their part.”

The move comes as a group representing chief doctors in the province’s emergency departments have decried overcrowding in hospitals, saying it is “out of control” and putting patients’ live at risk. In a letter to the health minister last week, the group said ER occupancy rates are among the highest ever recorded in Quebec.

On Tuesday afternoon, health data website Index Santé said the average emergency department occupancy in Quebec was at 136 per cent with 4,778 people in ERs across the province.

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The situation was even worse in Montreal-area emergency departments, with the average occupancy hovering at 148 per cent in the city and in Laval, where it topped 180 per cent.

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There is no “miracle solution” that will solve the problem, Boucher said, adding that packed ERs are having a hard time treating new patients.

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Health Minister Christian Dubé urged patients to consult the 811 health hotline, pharmacies and clinics for non-urgent medical cases in order to free up ERs.

“There are alternatives to the emergency room,” Dubé said.

Dr. Luc Boileau, director of Quebec’s public health department, said COVID, RSV and influenza cases are on the rise at this time of year. He recommended basic sanitary measures, such as staying home when sick and wearing a mask when out and about, as well as vaccination to guard against illnesses.

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When asked if the province could reinstate COVID-related rules as done in the past to curb the spread of illnesses, Boileau said “we’re not there.”

Dubé also thanked health-care workers for their devotion as they face tough conditions in hospitals as well as a long labour conflict between public sector workers and government.

“I know the winter will be difficult,” he said.

— with files from The Canadian Press

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Dr. Christopher Labos on Global News Morning

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