Manitoba could see new high for COVID-19 ICU patients within weeks, number doubled by summer, model suggests

Manitoba expects the number of COVID-19 patients in its intensive care units to exceed the peak of the second wave by the end of the May long weekend, and that number could double again before summer, modelling suggests.

Number of COVID-19 patients in Manitoba ICUs is rising at rate equal to worst-case scenario: model

A look down the hallway of a restricted COVID-19 unit at Winnipeg's Health Sciences Centre late last year. As of Thursday, there are 52 COVID-19 patients in Manitoba intensive care units, and projections suggest there could be record numbers by the end of the May long weekend. (Mikaela Mackenzie/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)

Manitoba expects the number of COVID-19 patients in its intensive care units to exceed the peak of the pandemic's second wave by the end of the May long weekend, and that number could double again before summer, modelling suggests.

A provincial presentation slide obtained by CBC News shows the number of COVID-19 patients in Manitoba ICUs is rising at a rate equal to the worst-case scenario in the province's pandemic model.

The presentation, dated May 4, projects Manitoba could end up with approximately 60 patients in ICUs by May 23, even as COVID-19 immunizations continue.

There were 52 patients in intensive care on Thursday.

"Projections show that by May 23, 2021, the ICU is expected to reach the same historical highest level of occupancy observed during the second wave," the presentation states.

CBC News has agreed not to identify the source of the presentation slide.

The presentation also projects Manitoba could have as many as 124 COVID-19 cases in ICU by June 21. That figure would be more than double the peak ICU number from the second wave, in December.

This slide from a provincial presentation dated May 4, 2021, projects Manitoba will have as many COVID-19 patients in intensive care wards by May 23 as the province did at the peak of the second wave. It also projects 124 COVID patients in ICU by June 21 if current trends continue. CBC News has agreed not to identify the source of the slide. (Province of Manitoba/Name withheld)

That projection, however, is based on current trends and may not come to pass if other factors intervene, such as more pandemic restrictions. Lockdowns are credited with reducing COVID-19 case counts within weeks and eventually reducing the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals and ICUs.

The May 4 presentation notes that the number of COVID-19 patients in provincial ICUs peaked during the second wave more than a month after a provincial lockdown was instituted on Nov. 12, 2020.

"This was expected due to the lag between diagnosing a case and it requiring ICU care and long lengths of stay," the presentation stated.

ICU doctor braced for 'tsunami of patients'

Earlier this week, 212 Manitoba physicians signed a letter to Premier Brian Pallister calling for the province to reinstitute a lockdown, along with supports for shuttered businesses and sidelined workers, warning the health-care system lacks the capacity to handle many more critically ill COVID-19 patients.

The doctors warned that hospitals are seeing younger patients infected with coronavirus, and that they are sicker on average than patients during the second wave. 

"They have to increase restrictions to blunt this curve, or we're going to be in deep, deep circumstances within two to three weeks, if not sooner," Dr. Dan Roberts said earlier this week. The intensive care physician at Health Sciences Centre was one of the signatories on the letter to Pallister.

Manitoba's normal, pre-pandemic ICU capacity is 72 patients, plus 14 more beds for cardiac patients requiring intensive care.

As of May 6, there were a total of 112 patients in Manitoba ICUs, including the 52 COVID-19 patients and patients with other diagnoses.

The total number of ICU patients — both COVID and non-COVID — peaked during the second wave at 129 patients, Manitoba Shared Health said in a December statement.

The province had plans in place during the second wave to increase the number of ICU beds to 173, if needed.

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Adding those beds requires more than making space to house patients, as a team of nurses and other medical staff provides each ICU patient with around-the-clock care, including monitoring a number of medical indicators for every patient.

Earlier this week, medical professionals told CBC News they feared burnout from existing workloads.

"I am tired. I am exhausted," said Dr. Kendiss Olafson, who works in ICUs at Winnipeg's St. Boniface and Grace hospitals.

"I am bracing myself for the third wave, anticipating the tsunami of patients that will be coming and scared as I hear the stories of my colleagues in Ontario."

'Further measures' could be considered: province

In a statement, Manitoba Shared Health said preparations are underway for more COVID-19 patients in ICUs. Chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa is slated to provide an update on those plans Friday.

"We can report PPE supplies remain stable, sufficient medical equipment is available and much of the space previously identified for repurposing to accommodate additional COVID patients remains open for use," a spokesperson for the provincial health organization said.

Manitoba Public Health said in a statement that it is watching the hospitalization and ICU numbers.

"We need to protect Manitobans and protect the health-care system. If the numbers continue to increase, further measures will be considered," a spokesperson said.

Manitoba Health Minister Heather Stefanson said in a statement that the rising patient numbers "has the full attention of our government and of Manitoba public health officials," and more restrictions could be put in place.

"While Manitoba has implemented some of the most stringent restrictions and enforcement measures in the country, planning for an increase in cases and hospitalizations has been ongoing in the event that current measures were not sufficient," Stefanson said.

"Public health and health system officials have been developing these plans over a considerable period of time and will be sharing them with the public in the near future."

Opposition politicians called for more measures immediately.

Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont called Thursday for an immediate circuit-breaker lockdown, while Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the province must release more data demonstrating where measures could be effective.


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.