Manitoba

Manitoba transfers 3 COVID-19 patients to Thunder Bay hospital

Three Manitoba patients with COVID-19 have been transferred to a Thunder Bay, Ont., hospital, as a spike in admissions has placed the province's intensive care capacity at "significant risk," a spokesperson said.

With Manitoba ICU capacity at 'significant risk,' 3 COVID-19 patients taken out of province

Manitoba's ICU capacity has been stretched in recent weeks, as the province has seen a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases during its third wave. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Three Manitoba patients with COVID-19 have been transferred to a Thunder Bay, Ont., hospital, as a spike in admissions has placed the province's intensive care capacity at "significant risk," a spokesperson said.

The first two patients were transferred to the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre in northwestern Ontario Tuesday because of a combination of "continued high admissions, no ICU patients that were sufficiently recovered for a move to a medicine ward, and an increase in the number of very sick patients in our medical wards at risk of needing to be transferred into ICU," a Manitoba Shared Health spokesperson wrote in an email Wednesday.

That "placed our critical care capacity at significant risk," the spokesperson wrote, leading to the decision to transfer two stable, COVID-19-positive ICU patients to Thunder Bay — about 600 kilometres east of Winnipeg — for ongoing care.

"These transfers gave us some much needed capacity in the immediate term while planning continues to shore up staffing resources within our ICUs," the spokesperson wrote.

A third ICU patient was sent to Thunder Bay on Wednesday, the spokesperson said in the evening.

This is the first time Manitoba has transferred patients out of province since the pandemic began more than 14 months ago, according to Shared Health, the provincial organization responsible for co-ordinating health-care services in Manitoba.

'Bursting at the seams'

Manitoba's ICU capacity has been stretched in recent weeks, as the province has seen a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases during its third wave.

Dr. Anand Kumar, a Winnipeg intensive care physician and infectious disease specialist, says the system is at capacity.

"When you get to the point where you've got to move people to a different province, that means that we're literally bursting at the seams. We're at 100 per cent capacity. And I knew we were at 100 per cent capacity the day before yesterday," he told CBC News Wednesday.

"You can't create nurses out of thin air. You can't create respiratory therapists out of thin air."

There simply isn't the staffing to treat everyone, Kumar said, adding he believes that's due to decisions made at the provincial level to consolidate health care and to public health measures that lack teeth.

"It's related to decisions that were made outside of the health-care system proper. Had we controlled the numbers and had we implemented restrictions when we should have, we wouldn't be dealing with this," Kumar said.

The province should have implemented a lockdown in early April, when cases began to rise exponentially in Manitoba, he said.

Number in ICU now past 2nd wave peak

As of Wednesday, there were a record 80 patients with COVID-19 in Manitoba intensive care units, and 131 ICU patients in total (including those who do not have COVID-19).

That number has now surpassed the peak during the pandemic's second wave in December, when Manitoba saw a high of 129 patients in intensive care.

Pre-pandemic, the normal ICU capacity in the province was 72.

Of the patients now in ICU with COVID-19, 10 are under the age of 40, Shared Health's spokesperson said.

"We cannot stress enough to Manitobans that we are seeing patients who are younger and healthier than those we saw during Wave Two," the spokesperson said. "These patients are very, very ill and they require our care. We cannot sustain these kind of surges for long."

On Monday, Manitoba Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin warned the health-care system is under enormous pressure. 

"We need to bring down these numbers.  There's far too much strain on our health-care system," he said.

Shared Health says the surge of COVID-19 patients is making it more challenging to care for those who don't have the disease.

Non-emergency surgeries are being postponed so space and staff can be used to meet the COVID-19 demands, while some non-COVID patients are being moved out of Winnipeg, or between facilities in rural Manitoba, Chief Nursing Officer Lanette Siragusa said Monday.

The province has also sent some stable COVID-19 patients home to be monitored remotely and others to long-term care homes. Staff have been redeployed from other hospital areas, including surgical units, Siragusa said.

'Highway medicine': Opposition leader

Siragusa declined to say how many intensive care beds could be staffed in Manitoba.

On Tuesday, Health Minister Heather Stefanson claimed Manitoba could staff 170 beds. Shared Health referred questions about that number back to the minister's office.

During question period at the Manitoba Legislature Wednesday, NDP Leader Wab Kinew accused Stefanson of failing to ensure the health-care system has sufficient resources to handle the third wave emergency.

"You want to talk about hallway medicine? You want to talk about highway medicine? It is here and it is the result of the cuts of this government," Kinew said.

Stefanson suggested the transfers are no reflection on provincial support for health care.

"We had a large number of patients to ICU in a short period of time, with no transfers out of the ICU, and due to high volume, a clinical decision was made to transfer patients to northwestern Ontario," she said.

Eric Jacobsohn, a Winnipeg ICU physician, wants to assure the public that anyone who needs critical care will still receive the care they need and that transporting patients is a normal everyday procedure in health care that "is a specialty on its own."

But when it comes to the ICU, things are tight, he said.

"The input is higher than the output right now from the ICU, so we're stretched to the limit," said Jacobsohn, who worked in the ICU at St. Boniface Hospital on Wednesday.

Right now, people in charge of admitting patients to intensive care have to know exactly where to put a patient and how they'll get there, while hoping there will be enough discharges to manage the local units with the resources available, he said.

Jacobsohn would say, however, that the resources planning for flex capacity was not sufficient, given Manitoba has been in this pandemic for over 14 months.

Provincial modelling projects the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care will continue to rise into June.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Find her on Twitter at @r_bergen or email her at rachel.bergen@cbc.ca.

With files from Erin Brohman

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