COVID-19’s human toll in Manitoba mounts, with more than 1 in 8 deaths linked to hospital outbreaks

Like thousands of Manitobans touched by COVID-19, Lilian Bonin is in pain.

Her days lately are spent digging through drawers and stuffing scarves, clothes, heirlooms and family photos into cardboard boxes as she cleans out her mother’s old apartment.

“I just feel like I am packing up the last bits of her life,” Bonin says, her voice wavering. “In some ways, I still can’t believe I am not going to see her.”

Her 89-year-old mother, Christiane Bonin, had a curiosity about the world and embraced travel. Her laugh lit up a room, as did her sense of hope. She was a helper and caregiver, and those qualities served her well in her career as a nurse.

Christiane died about two weeks ago, with no family by her side for those final moments.

She’s among the Manitobans who had the misfortune of needing hospital care amid the second wave of the pandemic and died after getting COVID-19 in hospital.

Most of the 37 deaths the province has confirmed are tied to hospital outbreaks happened amid a surge in cases in the past three months.

That group accounts for 13 per cent of the 280 deaths due to the illness the province had seen as of Friday.

The three latest deaths tied to hospital outbreaks happened this week, and include deaths at two Winnipeg hospitals — St. Boniface and Health Sciences Centre — and one at Bethesda Regional Health Centre in Steinbach.

Unprepared for outbreak

Christiane’s death is linked to the province’s deadliest hospital outbreak so far.

She was admitted to Victoria General Hospital in Winnipeg for treatment of a bacterial infection on Oct. 17. An outbreak was declared in her unit six days later, after two patients tested positive.

Christiane didn’t initially show symptoms, and wasn’t tested until four days later, said Lilian. By then, several others had contracted the virus, but didn’t know it.

The hospital seemed unprepared, said Lilian. The situation worsened quickly.

Fifteen people — 14 patients, including Christiane, and one health-care worker — died due to the Victoria outbreak, according to the province.

Christiane died after being transferred to a COVID-19 ward at the Health Sciences Centre.

As of Friday, 93 people had tested positive due to the Victoria General Hospital outbreak, including 51 patients and 42 staff members, according to the hospital. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Over half a dozen Manitoba hospitals have had outbreaks this fall, several of which have since resolved.

Winnipeg hospitals affected by outbreaks this fall include Victoria, the Health Sciences Centre and St. Boniface. An outbreak was also declared at Grace Hospital this week.

Hospitals have ramped up safeguards through the fall where they could.

Confirmed and suspected cases are put in their own private rooms when possible, or in designated COVID-19 wards. Patient flow between affected units has been restricted, and visitors are typically only allowed into hospitals right now in end-of-life scenarios.

‘A different way to die’

Despite the safeguards, the system remains strained due to the glut of cases requiring hospitalization, which raises the possibility of more in-facility transmission. Over 500 health-care workers have tested positive in the past nine months, the vast majority since August.

Lilian Bonin, right, wraps her arm around her mother, Christiane Bonin. Lilian hopes Manitobans consider the impact of losses like hers as COVID-19 cases remain high and the hospital system is strained. (Submitted by Lilian Bonin)

Lilian and her family have been very careful throughout the pandemic. They generally limited outings to essential purposes, which is why she is confident Victoria Hospital is where she contracted COVID-19 herself.

She was spending six hours a day with her mother before the outbreak was declared. Lilian tested positive shortly after her mother. Soon after that, so did her husband and son.

They all pulled through. Lilian recovered in time to don head-to-toe personal protective equipment to visit her mother days before she died.

“[I was] wearing the full PPE, you know, stroking her with my plastic gloves,” she said. “It’s a different way to die.”

Minimizing loss

While 37 people have died in the hospital outbreaks, almost half of all Manitobans who have died from COVID-19 lived in care homes. Around 90 per cent of COVID-19 deaths in the province so far involve people over the age of 60.

It’s impossible to quantify the magnitude of these losses, but Manitoba’s chief public health officer has recently made a point of grappling with the human toll behind the numbers during his near-daily public addresses.

“It might be easier just to think of these as numbers,” Dr. Brent Roussin said on Monday. “These are people who are loved, who are missed.… Consider how many Manitobans are affected by this.”

WATCH | ‘It certainly doesn’t do these people justice, just listing them like this’:

In November alone, 161 deaths were reported. Dr. Brent Roussin says it’s very difficult to report the deaths of loved ones every day. 1:15

Lilian detects a failure among some to truly comprehend that toll due to the ages of people who are dying.

“They still have an important role in a family, such as caring and supporting and laughing,” she said. “The elder, that’s such an important role, and I think it does get sort of dismissed.”

As if it weren’t difficult enough losing a loved one before their time, the inability to come together in the same room makes grieving even more difficult, said Lilian.

She is grateful that hospital staff ensured her mother wasn’t in pain in her final days. She just wishes she could’ve been there.

“Dying from COVID in a COVID time, that grieving process is just so complicated,” said Lilian.

“I didn’t get to share her death, and my mother and I shared everything. And that’s a hard thing.”

Christiane Bonin died Nov. 10. (Submitted by Lilian Bonin)