With Winnipeg hospitals crammed, NDP blames dwindling number of ICU beds for patient crunch

As Winnipeg grapples with a swarm of patients cramming hospital emergency rooms and urgent care centres, the Opposition New Democrats say a shrinking number of intensive care beds in use is at least in part to blame.

Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says drop is by design, after new types of critical care beds opened

NDP Leader Wab Kinew says a gradual cut in the number of ICU beds is part of the reason for current crowding in Winnipeg hospitals. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

As Winnipeg grapples with a swarm of patients cramming hospital emergency rooms and urgent care centres, the Opposition New Democrats say a shrinking number of intensive care beds in use is part of the reason for the crunch.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew said Wednesday a document obtained through a freedom of information request shows the number of available ICU beds in Winnipeg has steadily fallen, from 73 beds in January 2017 to 63 beds last July. 

On Tuesday, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority said it currently has only enough employees to care for patients in 58 of those 63 beds. 

"We know that that is below capacity," Kinew said. "That is fewer beds than are needed to take care of the patients out there who are very, very sick."

His proof, he said, is patients being transferred to Brandon because Winnipeg's health-care system is overwhelmed.

But Vickie Kaminski, the health authority's new CEO, said on Tuesday she was only aware of one such transfer since a post-Boxing Day spike in patient volumes at Winnipeg hospitals.

The health authority later said in a statement that patient transfers don't happen frequently, but are sometimes necessary to ensure patients are cared for.

Focus on bottom-line, NDP allege

"Manitoba patients aren't getting the care that they need," Kinew said, laying the blame on the Tories' reform of the province's health-care system, which included converting three Winnipeg emergency rooms into urgent care centres.

"It's simply because we have a Conservative government that wants to save money and cut the health-care system we all rely on." 

The NDP's document came to light a day after Winnipeg's health authority said city ERs and urgent care centres are currently seeing around 1,000 patients a day due to a spike in viruses — an average increase of about 120 patients per day over the post-Boxing Day period last year.

But the WHRA said the decline in the number of ICU beds — which is for critically ill patients who need consistent monitoring — is intentional.

The intensive care unit at Seven Oaks General Hospital in northwest Winnipeg wound down operations last September. Intensive care has been consolidated at the three remaining Winnipeg hospitals with emergency departments: the Health Sciences Centre, St. Boniface Hospital and Grace Hospital. (Julianne Runne/CBC)

Since 2017, the health authority has added more beds specifically for cardiac patients requiring intensive care, as well as more high-observation beds and a new category of intermediate beds, which previously didn't exist.

"Historical trends of the usage of these beds showed a number of patients who did not require full ICU-level, one-to-one care, but who would require the services" of one of the other types of beds, WRHA chief health operations officer Krista Williams said in a statement.

The health authority said there are currently 107 beds in Winnipeg for the most seriously ill patients, which includes 63 intensive care beds. There were 113 of those beds in January 2019 and 101 in January 2018. 

Health Minister Cameron Friesen said the beds for the most ill patients has been reorganized in a "more intelligent way."

"Meanwhile, work continues to strengthen the system," he said in a statement. "Thirty-three nurses will graduate from the critical care program next month and are expected to work in critical care units at [Health Sciences Centre], St. Boniface and the Grace."

On Tuesday, Kaminski said the issue of overcapacity in critical care units was brought up by doctors a few months ago. 

"They asked us to look at what was happening in critical care and what they were seeing as a troubling trend," she said.

"We're doing a formal review of our ICU capacity so that we know … ​​​​​​whether what we've got is going to match the volumes that they can predict."

Until then, the WRHA is working diligently to staff the vacant ICU beds, primarily with nurses, Kaminski said.

Specialized care needed

NDP health critic Uzoma Asagwara doesn't buy the explanation that other types of beds are making up for previous ICU beds.

"The kinds of patients that are in those beds … those are very sick patients and they're often patients whose level of acute sickness can change on any given day, any given hour, and you need specialized staff and nurses who can attend to those changes and those needs," Asagwara said.

"When you talk about placing people in other beds and making other accommodations, what you're saying is that you're putting your bottom dollar ahead of best practice in patient care and safety."


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. You can reach him at