Manitoba asks Ottawa for ICU nurses to help with 4th wave

Manitoba is asking the federal government for intensive care unit nurses to help with the fourth wave of COVID-19, as a lack of critical care beds causes massive system backlogs.

The province asked over the weekend for 15 to 30 nurses for about six weeks, officials said in a statement on Monday, and are awaiting a response.

The assistance would increase the province’s ICU capacity to address continued pressure in major acute care facilities due to the effects of COVID-19 while allowing more surgeries to take place, a spokesperson said.

As of Monday morning, there were 102 patients in Manitoba critical care units, up nearly 17 per cent from just a week ago, a spokesperson from Shared Health said.

Among those 102, 35 were COVID-19 patients, all but one of which were not fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

In the past week, 22 people were admitted to Manitoba ICUs for treatment of COVID-19, including two on Sunday, reaching a high of 106 ICU patients at one point over the weekend.

Manitoba’s pre-pandemic baseline for ICU beds was 72.

The Public Health Agency of Canada and Public Safety Canada did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

‘Dancing around zero capacity’

The move comes the day after 10 Manitoba doctors penned a letter to the premier asking for the military to be called for help, and for the province to crack down on people who are breaking public health orders.

Dr. Jillian Horton, a general internist at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre, was one of the signatories.

“We are dancing around zero capacity every single day,” she said in an interview on Monday, before the province announced its request for nurses,” she said. 

“There is no more buffer … there is no room for additional waves of cases or an onslaught of people needing ICU care.”

A COVID-19 suspected patient is brought into a resuscitation bay in the adult emergency department at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg on Wednesday. (Mikaela MacKenzie/Winnipeg Free Press/The Canadian Press)

In an attempt to free up health-care workers for critical care units, the Shared Health spokesperson said a number of people have been redeployed to bring capacity up to 110 beds.

However, the doctors said in their letter that the redeployment of staff is causing a huge surgical and diagnostic backlog, which will have unintended consequences down the line.

“If poor access to vital health services is to continue, we can expect many more deaths than those caused directly by COVID-19,” the letter said.

Meanwhile, stable patients whose care needs can be met elsewhere in the province will be moved to make room this week and in the weeks to come. In just over two months, 79 stable patients from Winnipeg and the Interlake-Eastern Regional Health Authority have been moved to facilities in other health regions.

“While we recognize that these transfers can be disruptive for both patients and their families, patients continue to receive high-quality care at their receiving site,” the spokesperson said.

Enforcement should be ramped up

Horton had harsh words for Manitoba’s Justice Minister Cameron Friesen, who she says is afraid to crack down on clandestine religious gatherings that break public health orders.

She and the nine other doctors are calling for the province to crack down on these violations that can spread COVID-19 and its highly contagious variants.

“What our leaders need to wake up and see is that they are just choosing to pass the buck in those situations when they do not step up and take the actions that we need to keep all Manitobans safe, they’re just asking a different population of Manitobans to bear pain and suffering,” Horton said.

Union Station MLA and NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara echoed those concerns.

“It’s reasonable for the government to ensure that enforcement is happening in communities where vaccine uptake is very low and public health orders are not being adhered to. But this government to date has shown us they’re unwilling to do that,” they said.

Friesen’s office did not immediately return calls for comment.

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