Manitoba public health rules, resources from Ottawa 'completely inadequate' to blunt Omicron spread: doctors

Manitoba doctors working on the front lines of the pandemic are calling out the provincial and the federal government for their response to the ongoing crisis in intensive care units in the Prairie province.

Ottawa sending 8 ICU nurses to Manitoba, enough to staff two beds 24 hours a day, doctors say

A nurse attends to a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit. Help is on the way for Manitoba health care workers, but two doctors say it more is needed, especially because they say the latest public health orders aren't strict enough. (Kyle Green/The Associated Press)

Manitoba doctors working on the front lines of the pandemic are calling out the provincial and the federal government for their responses to the ongoing crisis in intensive care units in the Prairie province.

On Saturday, Ottawa said it will send up to eight ICU nurses to Manitoba in response to a request from the province last weekend for between 15 and 30 nurses.

That came a day after the province announced capacity restrictions for both public and private gatherings ahead of the holidays.

Two Health Sciences Centre doctors are saying neither move comes close to helping health-care workers deal with the projected onslaught of COVID-19 patients, especially because emergency departments and intensive care units have been utterly overwhelmed for months.

Dr. Daniel Roberts, an intensive care physician says the help from Ottawa is "a drop in the bucket."

He says eight ICU nurses will basically staff two beds full-time, but he thinks it's more likely the province will need 35 or more critical care beds as COVID-19 cases grow.

"That's really not going to make much of a difference ...  We're really going to be in great difficulty."

Roberts is calling for more help to be requested, including the military, and for health care supports to be sought out of the province.

"Any measures that can be taken to offload patients to create a scenario where we can actually offer people who need an ICU bed over the coming weeks is justified," he said.

More restrictions needed

The doctor worries the federal government won't kick in to help unless Manitoba ramps up its public health orders, which he says are "completely inadequate to prevent what we're going to see over the next six to eight weeks."

Internist Dr. Jillian Horton echoes those concerns.

"Part of me has to wonder is the federal government saying, you know, you have to do more before we're going to direct resources toward you because otherwise it really isn't fair to the other provinces that are making bigger sacrifices," she said.

Public health experts are calling for people to reduce the number of contacts in light of the highly contagious Omicron variant. Dr. Jillian Horton says large events like hockey games could see widespread transmission. (Trevor Hagan/Canadian Press)

Annie Cullinan, press secretary for Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair told CBC News in email Saturday that the nurses' deployment will start on Dec. 20 and run until Jan. 17, with the possibility of an extension.

She directed any specific questions about the deployment to the Red Cross, which said Saturday that it is still working out the details.

The doctors said the most important thing Manitobans can do in the face of the Omicron variant, which is believed to be much more transmissible than the Delta variant, is cut down on contacts.

They want to see the province take that seriously and impose measures to limit those interactions where the virus is likely to spread.

"Allowing five unvaccinated people to your house for Christmas dinner to cough on your turkey isn't exactly an effective restriction," Roberts said.

In addition to stricter rules on indoor gatherings, both doctors say tighter capacity limits in retail stores should be made.

On Friday, Manitoba Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said the rules were an attempt to strike a balance of attempting to reduce transmission without entirely locking down ahead of the holidays.

"Do we feel if we tell people they're not able to gather with anyone, whether that's a realistic expectation," he said.

Horton says she sympathizes with the top doctor, but some big steps need to be taken.

"It really is hard to get the nuance of the messaging out that really, right now, the single most important thing we can be doing is limiting our contacts in every single context that we can," she said.

"Reducing the capacity of people in an NHL game to 50 per cent? Let's take a step back and get real. Is that really the best we can do to reduce our contacts? That's still going to be an absolute vulnerability for massive spread, once we see a dominance of Omicron in the community."


Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Email story ideas to