Hospital, care-home staff prepare to spend night at work as storm blows across southern Manitoba

The storm blowing across southern Manitoba has pushed frontline health workers to go to extreme lengths to ensure their patients get the care they need, and forced hospitals in Winnipeg to postpone some procedures.

Elective, non-emergent procedures postponed in Winnipeg

Boundary Trails Health Centre staff are meeting at muster points in Morden and Winkler, then a snowplow and fire truck guide them to the hospital. (Craig Doell/Twitter)

The storm blowing across southern Manitoba has pushed frontline health workers to go to extreme lengths to ensure their patients get the care they need, and forced hospitals in Winnipeg to postpone some procedures.

People in southern Manitoba came together to help get hospital workers safely to their jobs Wednesday morning.

An organization called the Southern Emergency Response Committee has organized convoys to take workers to the hospital, says  Lorraine Cassan, director of the Boundary Trails Health Centre between the cities of Winkler and Morden.

"It's amazing. It's such a community spirit here, and everybody is willing to pitch in and do a little bit to help out," she said in an interview with CBC News on Wednesday.

Workers meet at various muster points in Winkler and Morden at set times. 

In Winkler, they meet at the Winkler Arena, and in Morden, they meet at the Access Event Centre. A snowplow and fire truck then lead them to the hospital. 

A convoy left Winkler at 7 a.m. and Morden at 7:30 a.m. They'll also planned to leave Winkler at 2 and 7 p.m. and Morden at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.

There will also be convoys taking people back at the ends of their shifts.

The hospital is on a highway only a few kilometres from either city, but Cassan says the road is very open and snow often drifts on it during storms.

The hospital has around 600 staff members.

This isn't the first time the committee has done this for the hospital. They also organized a convoy during a storm in October 2019, Cassan says.

WATCH | Hospital in rural Manitoba organizes snowplow convoy:

Hospital in rural Manitoba organizes snowplow convoy for staff during storm

6 months ago
Duration 3:57
Lorraine Cassan, director at Boundary Trails Health Centre, arranged a snowplow convoy so hospital staff could drive to and from work safely during the snowstorm battering Manitoba. She spoke with CBC's Andrew Nichols.

Total snowfall accumulations by the storm's end are expected to range from 30-40 centimetres in and around Winnipeg, and 40-60 centimetres in the western Red River Valley, with northeast winds gusting as high as 70 km/h at times.

Several highways have been closed due to poor driving conditions, and school divisions across the region have cancelled classes.

At Boundary Trails, the hospital has cots for staff to sleep on if they don't feel they can safely return home.

The hospital also stocked up on food, water, clean linens and other essential items in case they can't get supplies in, Cassan says. 

"We got enough fuel to last about 100 hours if the power goes out and we have to run on general generators," she said. "Everybody really came together and I think we'll do okay."

Staff in the Prairie Mountain Health Region are also making plans to stay overnight.

"It has been disappointing how many of the agency staff cancelled their shifts due to the pending storm, leaving the local staff to have to pick up the slack," CEO Brian Schoonbaert said in a written statement.

Health officials have been booking hotel rooms and making arrangements for accommodations for staff since Monday, he said.

Some managers and staff in towns across the region have offered space for out-of-town staff, and some facilities have reached out to local snowmobile clubs to possibly help get staff to work, if needed.

Appointments postponed

In Winnipeg, most non-emergent and elective surgeries and procedures were cancelled for Wednesday afternoon and Thursday, Shared Health announced in a statement on their website. 

"The postponements are part of efforts to support staffing levels for urgent and emergent patient care needs and reduce the amount of unnecessary patient travel on Manitoba roads during the storm," the statement said.

Earlier Wednesday, a spokesperson had said most non-emergent surgeries, procedures, scans and outpatient services scheduled for Wednesday were expected to proceed as planned.

In its statement, the provincial health agency said the blizzard conditions had made the postponements necessary.

However, patient procedures in rural areas are expected to be "significantly affected," the spokesperson said.

All ambulatory care appointments at HSC Winnipeg on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday are also being rescheduled. 

"We encourage patients to monitor social media accounts of the appropriate service delivery organization for updates as the weather begins to deteriorate," the spokesperson said. "All patients whose scheduled procedure, scan or appointment is affected have been or will be notified."

Any patients who can't make it should contact the service provider. 

Health Sciences Centre is strongly discouraging general visitors from going to the hospital.

Designated essential caregivers are still welcome, but should prepare alternate accommodations if road conditions make it too dangerous to return home: "Physical capacity to house visitors outside of normal visiting hours is limited."

The hospital is also stocking up on supplies and making preparations in case staff have to sleep there.

The majority of home care clients will not be seen on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, unless they are considered high risk, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said in a news release.

For those who will receive service, only essential tasks will be performed and they will likely only be seen once in a 24-hour period.

The remainder of clients will need to find a backup plan.

Patients being discharged from hospital will likely not receive home care services over the coming days, so the WRHA says they will only be discharged if they can safely be released into the care of a family member or other support person.

Any primary care appointments that can be done virtually are being moved.

Care home staff sleep over

At the Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre personal care home in Winnipeg, staff have prepared to sleep on mattresses in board rooms, offices, and anywhere else they can find a spot.

Corinna Heieie, a nurse and unit co-ordinator at the centre, told CBC News she had worked from 11 p.m. on Tuesday until noon on Wednesday. After getting some sleep, she said, she planned to start working again at 11 p.m. and continue until around 3 p.m. on Thursday.

"I love my people and if it's not me, and somebody has to do it," said Heieie, who has worked as a nurse for eight years. "I don't know if it's great dedication, it's just what you do. My people need to be cared for and so that's what you do."

Planning ahead, Heieie brought her own pillow.

The centre also has food, toiletries and shower facilities available for staff.

CEO Laurie Cerqueti also planned to stay until the storm began to die out, hopefully by Friday, she said.

Although she didn't know exactly what staffing would look like Wednesday evening, Cerqueti said there could be as many as 15 staff members staying overnight. 

"We're very lucky to have such dedicated staff that are willing to do that, especially after we've been through two years of COVID," she said, adding that the centre currently has outbreaks in two of its units.

The centre has extended visiting hours in order to allow family members to stay with the residents longer, which relieves some of the pressure on staff, Cerqueti said.

The mattresses staff are using were purchased early on during the COVID-19 pandemic in anticipation that staff might have to stay overnight, but they have never needed them until now.

"It's just overwhelming," Heieie said. "And for a while, you can say this is just what we do and we just keep pushing forward. But I don't know, at some point, I don't know when enough is going to be enough."

Hospital, care-home staff prepare to spend night at work

6 months ago
Duration 2:22
Many Manitobans don't have the luxury of working from home or taking a storm day. Those working in hospitals and personal care homes are determined to keep their services going.

With files from Cameron MacLean, Samantha Samson and Janice Grant


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