Manitoba premier asks federal government to send health workers to help with COVID-19 battle

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says he spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Friday morning and asked for up to 50 critical care nurses and 20 respiratory therapists to help cope with the third wave of the pandemic that has the province seeing record numbers of new cases and people in intensive care.

Brian Pallister asking for critical care nurses, respiratory therapists, contact tracers

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says he spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday morning about the province's need for health workers to help battle a third wave of COVID-19. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Manitoba is asking the federal government for dozens of health-care workers to help fight rising COVID-19 numbers.

The province needs up to 50 critical care nurses and 20 respiratory therapists, as well as up to 50 contact tracers from Statistics Canada, Premier Brian Pallister said after talking with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday.

"This is going to be, we hope, a temporary thing and a short-term thing, but the sooner we get a little bit of backup help here the better," Pallister said.

Manitoba is in the grip of the third wave of the pandemic and is seeing record numbers of new cases and people in intensive care. Earlier this week, three intensive care unit (ICU) patients were sent to Ontario to free up bed space.

Pallister said officials from the two levels of government have been discussing the idea of bringing in staff from other provinces for about a week. He said the prime minister was supportive of the idea.

"I thanked him for that and, clearly, we're not asking for anything that others haven't already needed," he said, referring to interprovincial help received in some provinces hit earlier by the third wave.

Manitoba's intensive care units have been increasingly strained in recent weeks as the province battles its third wave of the pandemic. (Mikaela MacKenzie/The Canadian Press)

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc said the easiest health-care personnel to access across the federal government system have already been sent to Ontario. But he still expects the government will be able to "do what's necessary" to help Manitoba by the end of the weekend.

"I'm confident that we'll be able to provide them the support they need from contact tracing ... to medical professionals," he told CBC's Power & Politics host David Cochrane on Friday.

"The Public Health Agency [of Canada] is looking right now across the Government of Canada as to how quickly we can bring together these personnel. We may also have other provinces that are able to volunteer help, and the Government of Canada will assume those costs."

Respiratory therapists stretched 'thinner and thinner'

Bob Moroz, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals — whose union represents roughly 6,500 allied health professionals — said he's glad to finally see the province acknowledge respiratory therapists, who are overworked and understaffed in Manitoba.

This strain predates the pandemic, he said, pointing to positions deleted during the province's health-care overhaul a few years ago and others that are still unfilled.

As demand for respiratory therapists increases due to the current surge in ICU patients while the number of available workers stays the same, Moroz said some staff are pulling double shifts or caring for more patients than is safe because it's the only option, which results in burnout. 

"They know how serious their work is," he said. "And often to their detriment, they will continue to show up. That's really the heartbreaking part of what's happening right now in our province."

Bob Moroz is the president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals. (Ian Froese/CBC)

He said the strategy of moving some Manitoba patients to Ontario has compounded this strain. That's because each of those flights requires two advanced-practice respiratory therapists on board, and they're pulled from the team that does inter-hospital transfers in Manitoba.

"They're continuing to stretch us thinner and thinner," he said. "And when you move a crew like that to a flight, we're leaving a fairly large risk behind because we don't have that crew available."

While Moroz said he suspects even more patients will need to be moved, it's hard to say if that will happen.

"We don't know that, because it's very difficult to understand if our government or the employers even have a plan. If they have a plan, they don't articulate it. It does appear that they're just trying to make decisions on the fly in full crisis mode."

Winnipeg mayor disappointed in provincial response

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, who spoke separately with Trudeau, said he is disappointed with the provincial government's pandemic response to date.

Physicians across Manitoba warned weeks ago that growing COVID-19 cases would put a heavy strain on hospitals.

WATCH | Bowman calls for help for city's overwhelmed ICUs:

Winnipeg mayor calls for help for city's overwhelmed ICUs

3 years ago
Duration 1:44
Featured VideoWinnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman is pushing the province to show 'strong proactive leadership' and accept help from the federal government to staff intensive care units, which have been burdened by high COVID-19 case counts.

"Every week [the government is] reacting to rising case counts, when doctors and many in our community, myself included, have said we need strong proactive measures," Bowman said.

The mayor reiterated calls to increase fines for people who break public health orders. He also said non-essential retail businesses should be closed. Stores are currently allowed to remain open at 10 per cent capacity.

With files from Alana Cole