Manitoba

Physicians sound alarm over ICU capacity as Manitoba Shared Health concedes it can't staff enough beds

Manitoba doctors say the province is running out of resources to treat critically ill patients even though ICU numbers are nowhere near the peak of the third wave. The health minister acknowledges staffing is a problem —but insists there is a plan to increase ICU capacity.

Health Minister calls weekend cardiac cancellations 'just a blip in the system'

Doctors are once again warning of an intensive care crunch, even though total patient numbers are not as high as they were during the third wave. (Mikaela Mackenzie/Winnipeg Free Press/The Canadian Press)

Manitoba doctors say the province is running out of resources to treat critically ill patients even though ICU numbers are nowhere near the peak of the third wave.

The health minister acknowledges staffing is a problem — but insists there is a plan to increase ICU capacity.

Over the weekend, the province postponed elective cardiac surgeries in order to preserve capacity to treat patients in intensive care wards.

This occurred even though Manitoba has a total of 90 patients getting intensive care, which is higher than the pre-pandemic baseline of 72 patients but well below the third-wave peak of 131 on May 19.

A shortage of nurses and other staff has reduced ICU capacity during the fourth wave.

"Staffing these additional ICU beds remains the most problematic challenge, with calls out for nurses to pick up shifts or EFT in these units. The current incentives are not resulting in sufficient uptake to open the beds required. Efforts to redeploy and reassign staff are being met with mixed success," Shared Health said in a statement on Monday.

"While we are thankful and appreciative to the many nurses who have stepped forward, others have taken measures to refuse or deny these assignments."

The Manitoba Nurses Union rejected the province's claim.

"Plain and simply put, there was a [staffing] shortage pre-pandemic, and because the employer did nothing to retain or attract new nurses, there is nothing that can magically make nurses appear overnight," president Darlene Jackson said in a statement.

Regardless, hospital sources canvassed by CBC News said ICUs are struggling to place new patients every day and may soon be forced to consider transferring cardiac or COVID patients out of province again.

"The cancellation of cardiac surgeries is frankly an admission the ICUs are close to capacity in the province," Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, an ICU physician at St. Boniface Hospital, said Monday in an interview.

Health Minister Audrey Gordon acknowledged Monday while there are staffing shortages, she likened them to a handful of factory workers not showing up to the assembly line.

She also said the postponement of cardiac surgeries was a short-lived situation.

"It may have been just a blip in the system due to staffing challenges, but it's certainly not widespread or indicative of what's happening across the regions," she said.

Ramping up 

Gordon said ICU capacity can be ramped up.

Jacobsohn said he'd like to know how.

"It is surprising to most ICU physicians to learn there is a capacity to ramp up. Few of us know what that is," he said. "Every day has become an exercise in 'Where do we find the next bed?'"

Shared Health said in a statement it has enough staff to care for 104 intensive-care patients.

That is below the target of 110 set in November, when the province started cancelling surgeries again to free up staff for COVID care.

"As we have with previous waves, we will make every move available to us to ensure patients continue to get the care they need, but we are currently going in the wrong direction," Shared Health said in a statement.

Shared Health blamed the current crunch on unvaccinated patients in its statement. Eleven out of 15 COVID admissions to Manitoba hospitals this weekend were not vaccinated, it said.

Physicians sound alarm over ICU capacity in Manitoba

6 months ago
Duration 2:16
Manitoba doctors say the province is running out of resources to treat critically ill patients even though ICU numbers are nowhere near the peak of the third wave.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

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