Manitoba

Low vaccination rates worry staff at southern Manitoba hospital as 4th wave begins

With fourth waves crashing down on hospitals in the two prairie provinces to the west, some days Craig Doell feels like he's still recovering from Manitoba's third wave.

Early signs of 4th COVID-19 wave in Manitoba driven by cases in region with lowest vaccine uptake: Roussin

Craig Doell, the lone respiratory therapist at Boundary Trails Health Centre, says he is bracing for a repeat of the third wave as case numbers rise in the Southern Health region. (Submitted by Craig Doell)

Fourth waves are crashing down on hospitals in Alberta and Saskatchewan, but Craig Doell feels like he's still recovering from Manitoba's third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Relatively speaking, COVID-19 hospitalization numbers aren't bad so far at Boundary Trails Health Centre, located between the southern Manitoba cities of Morden and Winkler, where Doell works as the lone respiratory therapist.

But the 46-year-old fears low vaccine uptake in the area means it won't stay that way.

"There's that arm's-length view here ... 'it's not in my backyard, I don't have to worry about it,'" said Doell.

"The unfortunate thing with this delta variant, and what we're seeing in Alberta and Saskatchewan right now ... is that it's not going to be arm's-length for very long."

Earlier this week, Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief provincial health officer, warned there are early signs of a fourth wave emerging in the province, driven by disproportionately high case numbers in the Southern Health region. 

The region has the lowest vaccination rates of Manitoba's five health regions, at 64.7 per cent as of Wednesday. The Southern Health districts of Stanley (23.5 per cent) and Winkler (40.5 per cent) have among the lowest rates in the province.

That, coupled with persistent misinformation on vaccines, worries Doell at this stage in the pandemic.

He started tweeting his frustrations this spring amid a third wave that pushed Manitoba's health-care system to the brink.

Doell said some in his community were suggesting news coverage of the pressure Boundary Trails was under was being blown out of proportion. Those people didn't see what was going on behind close doors in the hospital, he said.

'It's disheartening': respiratory therapist

"The helicopter was coming once, twice a day almost every day for multiple, multiple days," Doell said in an interview with Information Radio host Marcy Markusa. "I've seen what happens if you get sick from it. It's disheartening."

In late May and June, the hospital was very busy. Staff struggled to keep up with the crush of COVID-19 patients and their oxygen requirements. 

Doell says it's frustrating and disheartening to see vaccine rates as low as they are in communities surrounding Boundary Trails at this stage in the pandemic. (Submitted by Craig Doell)

Boundary Trails is a referral centre that doesn't have the required staffing levels to care for intubated patients for long. The more acutely sick were flown to larger facilities in Winnipeg and Brandon, accompanied by Doell a couple times a week.

"The people that we were transferring and taking care of that were critically ill were all unvaccinated, and people weren't taking the virus serious enough in our area."

The consequences extended beyond the patients who were dying or surviving with possible lasting health effects, Doell says.

Staff were physically overwhelmed. Doell said he was involved in 50 COVID-19 patient intubations this spring, a significantly higher volume than he's used to. He recalls a two-week period where he worked more than 200 hours. 

For Father's Day, Doell's kids gave him a zero gravity chair for his office so that he had somewhere to sneak in naps at work.

"A lot of times I just wouldn't go home. If there was a little bit of a reprieve I would try to take a nap with a pillow and a blanket in my office and hopefully get a couple hours," he said.

"It was very, very exhausting…. As soon as you would get one [patient] out, you would get one in."

Boundary Trails Health Centre is located 100 kilometres southwest of Winnipeg, between Winkler and Morden. (Google Street View)

In May, Dr. Ganesan Abbu said staff at Boundary Trails were encountering very ill patients, some on their deathbeds, who still denied the existence of COVID-19. Some COVID-19 patients called the pandemic a hoax, he said.

"I'm hoping that we're not going to be as stretched as much as we were in the third wave," Abbu, an anesthetist and special care unit doctor at the hospital, said on Wednesday. 

In terms of patient volume, Boundary Trails is in good shape for now.

There were three COVID-19 patients at Boundary Trails as of Wednesday. Three others who were unvaccinated have been intubated and transferred to other facilities in the past week and a half, said Abbu. 

But he says those who are ending up at Boundary Trails are unvaccinated and sicker on average than during the third wave. 

Dr. Ganesan Abbu is an anesthetist and the director of the special care unit, which functions similarly to an ICU, at Boundary Trails. (CBC)

"I think a lot of my colleagues are frustrated that patients come to us for advice on all other things, and yet they don't want to accept our opinion or advice when it comes to immunization," he said.

"Immunization is probably the only way to actually prevent either serious illness or dying from COVID."

Abbu and Doell hope community members do what they can to prevent some of those dire outcomes and minimize Manitoba's fourth wave by getting immunized.

"But we're all realistic," Doell said. "What is happening out west probably [is] going to happen locally because of our low [vaccination] numbers.

"If you can prevent the heartbreak that other families in the region have experienced by getting this, please do it."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology and interests in courts, climate, health and more. He has produced episodes for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is the Prairie rep for OutCBC. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Janice Grant

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