HALIFAX -- One of the largest long-term care facilities in Atlantic Canada is trying to maintain staffing levels by recruiting people who lost their jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the Canadian economy.

Janet Simm, the CEO of Halifax-based Northwood, says staffing remains challenging as 80 people are currently off work -- about 40 per cent of them because of the virus.

Still, the centre's new pandemic relief team has already recruited 68 new employees, including laid-off day-care workers, airport staff, hotel cooks and others from the devastated food-services industry.

"We're just beginning to train and deploy those staff in the areas of need and that should help us dramatically," Simm said in an interview.

But "the staffing levels are certainly not at the level that we would normally be in. Most days, we're starting with 60 per cent of the staff on the unit."

Simm said 38 residents of Northwood's Halifax campus had tested positive for the virus as of Wednesday afternoon, most with mild symptoms. There were also 21 staff who have tested positive.

The long-term care facility in downtown Halifax has 485 residents.

Nova Scotia health officials say that as of Wednesday, there were seven licensed long-term care homes in the province with cases of COVID-19, affecting 42 residents and 23 staff.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the impact of COVID-19 on the country's nursing homes has been more devastating than expected. As a result, the federal government is considering sending the military to support health-care workers in Quebec, where the death toll continues to grow.

On Wednesday, Quebec Premier Francois Legault made a desperate plea for family doctors and medical specialists to offer their help at long-term care homes that are running low on staff.

The premier said doctors may be overqualified to help feed and take care of the elderly, but he called on their sense of duty to help save lives.

As well, Quebec's Health Department has confirmed that 41 facilities are struggling to respond to novel coronavirus outbreaks. The seven hardest-hit facilities are in Laval, Montreal and Shawinigan.

As a result, the Quebec government has formally requested help from Ottawa to deal with acute staffing shortages.

"It is impossible to imagine the anguish families and indeed our elders are going through in this situation -- there is just so much fear, so much uncertainty," Trudeau said Thursday.

More than 90 per cent of the patients confirmed to have died from the virus in Canada were over the age of 60 -- and half of them lived in long-term care centres.

Michele Lowe, managing director of the Nursing Homes of Nova Scotia Association, said the 78 long-term care facilities her organization represents faced staffing shortages long before the virus was first reported in the province.

Though maintaining staffing levels remains a challenge, most facilities have their own recruiting teams in place, she said.

"COVID-19 has shone the spotlight on the fact that this sector continues to struggle in terms of recruitment," Lowe said in an interview Thursday.

However, Lowe said long-term care facilities in Nova Scotia had some extra time to prepare for the pandemic as the province was the last in Canada to report a case. That happened on March 15.

"When B.C. and Ontario were restricting visitors, we already had that in place in Nova Scotia," she said. "That has been our saving grace ... We are not at all at the level that you see in Quebec or Ontario."

Still, there was a jolt to the system when the Magnolia residential care home in Enfield, N.S., reported its first case in late March.

That's when Nova Scotia's long-term care sector introduced additional measures to stop the spread of the virus.

In Halifax, the head of people services at Northwood, Caroline Campbell, said the facility needs more staff but the pandemic relief team has done a good job hiring new recruits.

"We're pretty excited about the numbers," she said. "We've done really well."

The biggest challenge for Northwood is replacing skilled front-line staff, such as registered nurses.

"Now we're left with big gaps and we're trying to fill them in with casual workers who are not trained at the level of a registered nurse," Campbell said. "Those clinical roles are very difficult to replace."

-- With files from Keith Doucette and Michael Tutton in Halifax and Kevin Bissett in Fredericton.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2020.