Manitoba premier should visit ICU to see why mask mandate needed, says mother of baby hospitalized with RSV

The mother of a baby sick with RSV in the neonatal intensive care unit at Winnipeg Children’s Hospital is calling for people to wear masks to slow the spread of respiratory viruses that have led to a surge in the number of kids ending up in the emergency department. 

Significant rise in last 2 weeks in number of children in ER with respiratory illnesses, Shared Health says

A woman wearing a mask cradles a baby in her arms. A tube is taped to side of the baby's face.
Devon McWilliams says her daughter Willow is currently sick with RSV in the neonatal intensive care unit at Winnipeg Children’s Hospital. (Submitted by Devon McWilliams)

The mother of a baby in a Winnipeg intensive care unit says people need to wear masks to slow the spread of respiratory viruses that have led to a surge in the number of kids ending up in hospital.

Devon McWilliams's daughter Willow is just under four months old and has RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. She's been taken to the neonatal intensive care unit at Winnipeg's Children's Hospital, where she had to be intubated.

In a post shared on social media, McWilliams invited Premier Heather Stefanson to the hospital unit to better understand why she thinks a mask mandate is necessary. 

"I have one visitor spot left and it has your name on it," McWilliams wrote in the post, addressing the premier. "Stop thinking of votes for the next election, start thinking of Manitoba's future and the legacy you will leave."

The Winnipeg Children's Hospital emergency department has seen a significant rise in the number of children with respiratory illnesses, including RSV and influenza, in the past two weeks, a Manitoba Shared Health spokesperson said Thursday. 

Earlier this week, the department's medical director said it is in a crisis due to the number of patients presenting in emergency and how sick they are. 

McWilliams declined an interview but answered some questions in writing, and gave CBC permission to share her social media post. 

She wrote the post on Friday, one day after Stefanson said at a news conference that there are no current plans for a mask mandate, though the premier encouraged people who are sick to wear one if they are "out and about" in public.

'Wear a mask, save a baby'

Born early, at just 27 weeks, McWilliams's daughter spent the first part of her life in the neonatal ICU.

She was discharged from hospital after 99 days, but after Willow had been home for just four days, McWilliams's older children started getting sick, she said.

She first tried isolating with Willow in a different part of their home, and then moved to her parents' home to try to keep Willow from getting sick. 

When the baby started to show signs of difficulty breathing, McWilliams, who lives outside Winnipeg, took her to a local hospital.

They were eventually airlifted to Winnipeg Children's Hospital, where McWilliams said they were admitted to the NICU because there was no room in the pediatric intensive care unit. 

A baby wrapped in a pink blanket lies in a hospital bed, with tubes running into her nose.
McWilliams said she wants to see people wear masks to protect babies like her daughter Willow, as the province sees a surge in respiratory viruses affecting children. (Submitted by Devon McWilliams)

In her online post, McWilliams said both Willow's lungs collapsed. 

"The right worse [than] the left," she wrote, which was expected but "heart-breaking," the post said.

"Her lungs are now worse then ever. One step forward, two steps back, three steps forward, one step back. Doing the NICU shuffle." 

McWilliams said she hopes by sharing her story, she can help prevent another family from going through what hers is right now. 

She said she understands people may find wearing a mask uncomfortable and it "can feel invasive."

"But you know what's more uncomfortable and invasive? Having a tube shoved down your throat and air forced into your lungs," she wrote.

"Wear a mask, save a baby!" 

Visits to children's ER up: Shared Health

Federal Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam is among those calling for people to mask up again as hospitals struggle with a spike of respiratory viruses.

In Winnipeg, an emergency physician and former Liberal member of Parliament, as well as a virologist, told CBC they believe it's time to bring back a mask mandate

At Thursday's news conference — held to announce a plan to add health-care professionals to the public system — Stefanson was asked whether there was anything the province could do to alleviate the strain on the Children's Hospital right now. The premier let Health Minister Audrey Gordon respond.

Gordon pointed to the fact the province's RSV antibody program, aimed at protecting babies and toddlers at high risk from virus if infected, had started early this cold and flu season.

She also reminded people to wash their hands and encouraged people to wear a mask if ill.

On Thursday, Shared Health said so far this month, approximately 179.6 patients per day have visited the children's emergency department — up about 23 per cent from October.

That number is also up about 45 per cent year-over-year, the spokesperson said. The daily average last November was 124 patients.

Some children are testing positive for more than one virus at the same time, the spokesperson said.

Staff at Children's Hospital are being asked to work extra shifts and overtime. As well, some staff have been temporarily reassigned to the pediatric intensive care unit and contingency areas are being opened to handle additional patients, said the spokesperson. 

While many common cold and flu symptoms can be looked after at home with rest and fluids, Shared Health says any children who have trouble breathing, can't take in fluids or have extreme fatigue should go to the nearest emergency room.


Alana Cole

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Alana Cole is a reporter at CBC Manitoba. Email:

With files from Caitlyn Gowriluk