More surgeries may be cancelled as Manitoba ICUs face continued strain, official says

Health officials are looking at cancelling more surgeries in Manitoba to free up hospital resources as a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases continues to strain the province's intensive care units.

6 COVID-19 patients admitted to ICU on Monday, highest single-day increase since 3rd wave: Shared Health

A health-care worker cares for a COVID-19 patient in an intensive care unit at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. Thirty-four of the 98 patients in Manitoba's ICUs are now patients with cases of the illness. (Mikaela MacKenzie/The Canadian Press pool)

Health officials are looking at cancelling more surgeries in Manitoba to free up hospital resources as a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases continues to strain the province's intensive care units.

The surge in cases is largely being driven by people who haven't been immunized against the coronavirus, said Monika Warren, provincial COVID-19 operations chief for Shared Health.

"Let me be very clear. We are not seeing many fully vaccinated patients in hospital or in ICU," Warren said at a news conference on Wednesday.

"The recurring theme in all of this is the sheer volume of unvaccinated patients that are driving these numbers and putting the health services of our province at risk."

Later Wednesday, Health Minister Audrey Gordon announced details about a task force to address Manitoba's growing backlog of cancelled surgical and diagnostic procedures.

Physicians' organization Doctors Manitoba estimates the tally has surpassed 152,000 postponed procedures.

Officials are also looking at moving more patients who no longer need high-acuity care to other hospitals for treatment, Warren said. Since that strategy was announced at the beginning of October, dozens of people have been transferred.

The number of COVID-19 patients landing in intensive care has reached levels not seen in months, Warren said.

On Monday, six more patients with the illness were admitted to intensive care units — the highest single-day increase the province has seen since the third wave, she said. There were another four admissions on Tuesday. 

The province's health-care system begins to see a significant strain when the average daily number of new intensive care admissions reaches three.

Monika Warren, provincial COVID-19 operations chief for Shared Health, speaks during a Zoom news conference with other Manitoba health officials on Wednesday. (Zoom)

Patients with COVID-19 now make up 34 of the 98 patients in Manitoba's ICUs, Warren said, with all but one unvaccinated. Before the pandemic, the province's critical care baseline capacity was 72 beds.

Warren said Manitoba isn't yet at the point of moving intensive care patients outside the province like it did in the third wave, and called that step a "last resort."

46 nurses left ICUs

Manitoba's strategy to expand intensive care capacity needs to be informed by nurses working in the units, Warren said, especially since so many have left during the pandemic.

The province currently has 284 ICU nursing positions filled. That's an overall increase of 12 from this time last year, but 46 nurses left the units in that time, she said.

"This turnover is amongst the lowest you'll find in any hospital unit, but these nurses cannot be easily replaced," Warren said.

Some moved to other nursing jobs, but others retired after a "prolonged and stressful" experience responding to the pandemic.

"It's getting really hard for our teams to see the finish line," Warren said.

The province has been trying to recruit more ICU nurses over the past year and a half, and 40 nurses recently finished Manitoba's intensive care course, she said.

Manitoba is also looking at expanding health-care support positions like uncertified health-care aides and potentially pulling nurses with ICU experience back into the units to create more capacity, she said.

"We've introduced a great number, hundreds, of uncertified health-care aides, both in the long term care, but [also] in the acute care system."

Get vaccinated, officials urge

Officials at Wednesday's news conference asked people to get vaccinated to help reduce the strain on hospitals.

"Please do it for yourself, do it for your family, do it for your community, and most importantly, our health-care workers are asking [you to] please do it for them," Warren said.

Dr. Jazz Atwal, deputy chief provincial public health officer, said data shows that even if vaccinated people get COVID-19, their cases are much milder.

In Manitoba, unvaccinated people are 5.5 times as likely to get COVID-19, 8.4 times as likely to be hospitalized, 19 times as likely to end up in intensive care and 11.8 times as likely to die from the illness, Atwal said.

Meanwhile, the medical lead of Manitoba's vaccine implementation task force urged people to get their first, second and third doses as soon as they're eligible — especially now that the province has reported five cases of the omicron variant that was first identified in South Africa.

"We don't know how well you are protected after having two doses against omicron, but it's looking very optimistic for how well you are protected after a booster dose," Reimer said.

A doctor transfers a COVID-19 vaccine into a syringe in this file photo. Statistics show unvaccinated people in Manitoba have been more likely to get the illness and have severe outcomes. (Steven Senne/The Associated Press)

Manitoba is now recommending people age 18 to 29 get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, because the risk of side-effects like myocarditis, while rare overall, appears to be even rarer with the Pfizer vaccine than the one from Moderna.

"The risk was already very low, but we want it to be as low as possible," Reimer said.

The Moderna vaccine is still an effective option and both shots carry a lower risk of cardiac complications than being infected with COVID-19 itself, she said.

WATCH | Full news conference on COVID-19 | December 8, 2021:

Manitoba government daily briefing on coronavirus: Dec. 8

7 months ago
Duration 1:00:48
Provincial officials give update on COVID-19 outbreak: Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021.


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