Manitoba premier avoids questions about restrictions but vows to ramp up rapid testing

A day after the province revealed it had asked the federal government for help with a critical shortage of intensive care nurses, Manitoba’s premier avoided suggestions of more public health restrictions.

Heather Stefanson instead pointed Tuesday to more rapid testing as a way to address the province’s current COVID-19 crisis.

The provincial government asked Ottawa for 15 to 30 intensive care unit nurses for approximately six weeks, the province said in a statement Monday afternoon.

Premier Stefanson called it an interim measure to address the ongoing shortage of beds.

“Obviously, we need to address ICU capacity along with our surgical and diagnostic backlogs. It all goes part and parcel. We don’t want to be taking staff from one area just to staff another, and so there’s obviously some challenges we need to deal with there,” she told reporters following a news conference announcing support for a recovery centre.

“We want to do whatever it takes to ensure that we put patient safety first and foremost in all of this. That’s why we have asked for some help from the federal government.”

Over the weekend, a group of doctors issued a letter asking for help in hospitals, plus more enforcement and closures, if necessary, ahead of the holidays.

When asked if a lockdown is on the horizon to quell rising case numbers and COVID-19-related hospitalizations, Stefanson avoided the topic and instead urged people to get vaccinated.

The premier says it’s a “falsehood” that enforcement of public health orders isn’t happening in areas with low vaccine uptake.

In the last two months, 68 per cent of all COVID-19 tickets issued were in the Southern Health Region, the part of the province with the lowest vaccine uptake, Stefanson said.

“We take this very seriously. I don’t want anyone to think out there that we’re not taking enforcement seriously, and where we need to take more action, we will.”

As of November, Manitoba has distributed about 1.5 million of its 2.7 million rapid testing kits. Stefanson vowed on Tuesday to make them more available to the general public. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

She also said she’s advocating for more free rapid tests to be made readily available.

“If we can get those rapid tests and know and understand that people are infected with COVID … they can begin their isolation or whatever public health says they should be taking in terms of action,” she said.

Until now, the province has repeatedly warned rapid tests can offer a false sense of security. It has yet to make at-home testing kits widely available to the general public.

As of November, the province has distributed about 1.5 million of its 2.7 million tests, prioritizing schools and businesses. Other provinces, meanwhile, have made the tests available at locations like libraries, liquor stores and gas stations.

Call in the military: NDP

Stefanson’s call to Ottawa for more intensive care unit nurses is not enough, says Dr. Philippe Lagacé-Wiens, a medical microbiologist and physician at St. Boniface Hospital.

“The addition of some nursing staff is bound to be helpful. I don’t think alone it will be sufficient to stop that risk of having to send people out of province for intensive care or other care,” he said in a Tuesday interview.

He says additional measures will be needed, including limiting gatherings over the holidays to prevent COVID-19 transmission in the face of highly transmissible coronavirus variants.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew echoed Lagacé-Wiens’s concerns at a news conference on Tuesday.

“The concern that we have is that even once the federal government responds to that request [for nurses], it’s not clear whether that’s going to provide us with the additional capacity in our health-care system that we need to take care of Manitobans,” he said.

“We are here again to reiterate our call for the provincial government to ask the military to come into Manitoba.”

Kinew said bringing in the Armed Forces, as well as intensive care nurses from the federal government, could improve patient outcomes.

Health critic and NDP MLA for Union Station Uzoma Asagwara wonders why Stefanson waited until the weekend to ask the federal government for help.

“We shouldn’t have to get to a point here in Manitoba where our health care system outright collapses before the premier takes that step and asks for help,” Asagwara said.

The premier says her government is working to ensure the health-care system is bolstered, but in the interim, patients might need to be sent out of province for care.

“I will never say that patients may not have to go out of province again.… Obviously, we want to keep them here, but these are the tools that we have in our toolbox,” she said.

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