ICU doctors call for more urgent action as Manitoba deals with surgical, diagnostic backlog

Two Winnipeg doctors say the Manitoba government needs to act with more urgency to get a handle on COVID-19 intensive care admissions and tackle its growing backlog of surgeries.

Health minister says details on backlog task force coming Wednesday

A COVID-19 suspected patient is brought into a resuscitation bay in the adult emergency department at the Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie/Winnipeg Free Press/The Canadian Press)

Two Winnipeg doctors say the Manitoba government needs to act with more urgency to get a handle on COVID-19 intensive care admissions and tackle its growing backlog of surgeries.

Dr. Dan Roberts, an ICU physician at the city's Health Sciences Centre, said that means pushing vaccines harder, ramping up enforcement of existing public health measures and bringing tougher restrictions to parts of the province where immunization rates are low.

That includes communities in the Southern Health region, where vaccine uptake is about 20 per cent lower than the provincial rate. New pandemic rules haven't been brought in for the area since mid-November, when capacity limits were added for religious gatherings that don't require proof of vaccination.

"The government can't continue to play down the impact of these low vaccination communities," Roberts said.

"We can't just keep hiding what's going on and hoping that people just won't notice."

Dr. Dan Roberts is an intensive care physician at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre. (Empire Photography)

Unvaccinated Manitobans with COVID-19 have continued to be major contributors to the increasing pressure on the province's hospitals.

As of Friday, more than 60 per cent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients were not fully immunized. For those in intensive care, that number was 88 per cent.

Backlog growing

Rising hospital numbers have in turn caused a major backlog of surgical and diagnostic procedures, with more than 130,000 procedures cancelled to free up beds and resources to deal with the sickest patients.

People "refusing to be vaccinated is having massive effects," said Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, an intensive care specialist and cardiac anesthesiologist in Winnipeg. 

"And until we can solve that issue, we will be in trouble for months to come."

Jacobsohn said the province's plan to address its backlog needs to be transparent, starting with announcing the details of a previously announced task force — an update that's been delayed several times.

"I think it's a disgrace that the task force is [only coming] now at the end of 2021, when we're in this unbelievable mess as far as surgical and diagnostic procedures go," he said.

"It's fascinating that we're this far in, we're this far behind [and] that we're now just before Christmas getting together a group of experts."

Dr. Eric Jacobsohn is an intensive care specialist and cardiac anesthesiologist in Winnipeg. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Roberts said the approach of deferring as many resources as possible made sense early on in the pandemic. But that plan doesn't appear to have considered how far-reaching the effects of a massive surgical and diagnostic backlog would be.

"These were all unintended consequences at the beginning of the pandemic," he said. 

"But now we know about them, we need to be thinking about them because they can no longer be considered as unintended. So what do we do about this?"

Details coming Wednesday: minister

Health Minister Audrey Gordon said the province will announce more details about that task force on Wednesday.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Health said on Sunday the province has signed contracts with several organizations to perform over 11,000 procedures that are part of the backlog.

Roberts said the province needs to use what it's learned over the pandemic to make its decisions moving forward — and he hopes to put pressure on government to act.

"The political calculus here has been, 'Let's just build up ICU capacity and maintain it and hope for the best.' That's not a strategy," he said.

"We're losing staff, we're losing nurses, people are getting exhausted, they're quitting. And we can't just continue to do this and hope for the best. Hope is not a strategy that is likely to get us out of this."

And Jacobsohn said there needs to be a hard look taken at what exactly went wrong through a provincial inquest once the pandemic is over.

"I think it's fair to ask, in a province where 1,300 people have died of COVID, where an unknown number of people have had their cancers progress, where people on other surgical waiting lists have got into trouble, where quality of life has deteriorated … was this unpreventable?" Jaconsohn said.

"To simply say people have paid with their lives, have paid with their health, paid with their mental health ... is frankly unacceptable."


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