Manitoba adds ICU beds as effects of pandemic’s 3rd wave hit hospitals

Manitoba hospitals are ramping up critical care systems as an influx of patients in the past two weeks — many of them younger and sicker than in previous waves of the pandemic — is beginning to strain intensive care units.

The province says the surge in cases has triggered the need to add more ICU beds and postpone some surgeries right away.

There are 502 new cases and COVID-19 hospitalizations shot up to 201 on Friday, said Dr. Jazz Atwal, acting deputy chief provincial public health officer. There were 144 people in hospital with COVID-19 two weeks ago.

Over half of the COVID-19 patients are under the age of 70; one-fifth are under 40.

There were 56 patients with the illness in ICU on Friday. A couple weeks ago, there were 36.

“The situation is changing rapidly,” Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer for Manitoba Shared Health, said during a Friday morning technical briefing on the evolving situation. “We are getting fairly close to our peak in wave two.”

The wave two intensive care peak was 129 patients in ICU.

Manitoba hospitals are ramping up critical care systems as an influx of patients in the past two weeks — many of them younger and sicker than in previous waves of the pandemic — is beginning to strain intensive care units. 3:07

Manitoba is currently staffing 115 intensive care beds provincewide (this requires using spaces outside of existing ICUs) and adding 19 more to four hospitals in the coming days, health officials said.

The information was provided shortly before Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said more restrictions will be announced Friday at a 6 p.m. news conference with Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin. CBC will live stream that news conference on the CBC Manitoba website, Facebook page, Twitter feed and CBC Gem.

Pandemic modelling data obtained by CBC News suggests the province expects the number of COVID-19 patients in its intensive care units to exceed the peak of the pandemic’s second wave by the end of the May long weekend, and the number could double again before summer.

On Sunday alone, 10 people were admitted to Manitoba hospital ICUs, which came as a surprise based on daily hospitalization averages and test positivity rates leading up to then, said another health official at the briefing. (The briefing was provided with the condition that only Siragusa be named and quoted, with others providing background information.)

Siragusa said Manitoba has prior planning to provide up to 173 ICU beds. That includes plans for required resources, such as ventilators, drugs and staff to monitor the beds.

Adding 60 ICU nurses

Manitoba is also creating 60 full-time nursing positions dedicated to critical care in Brandon and Winnipeg. This will work out to about about three more nurses on staff 24/7 at the Brandon Regional and Grace hospitals, and four more at Health Sciences Centre and St. Boniface Hospital.

Those staff will first need to undergo an orientation and on-the-job training. In the meantime, Siragusa said nurses from other fields who helped out in ICUs during the second wave have already volunteered to pitch in.

Lanette Siragusa, chief nursing officer for Shared Health, says Manitoba is adding 19 ICU beds across four hospitals in the coming days to accommodate the recent surge. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Not all of the nurses being shuffled into ICUs have agreed to the move. Manitoba Shared Health said in a statement that though many have volunteered to do so, an agreement struck with the Manitoba Nurses’ Union amid the second wave still allows health authorities to reassign nurses to priority areas outside of their home base.

Nurses in the province have been without a contract for four years, and MNU president Darlene Jackson notes vacancies in Winnipeg are as high as 16 per cent and nearly 50 per cent in the north. 

The double shifts and few breaks are already taking a toll on nurses, said Jackson.

“That’s so worrying,” said Jackson. “We’re in the third wave with nurses who are already exhausted, who are already burned out and who are traumatized and have had no opportunity to refresh, to rejuvenate going into a third wave. “

Some surgeries cut

Due to current conditions, some non-urgent elective surgeries will be cancelled or postponed as surgery and medical staff are redeployed to help out in intensive care units. 

Urgent surgeries will continue, but some people in Winnipeg, for example, may see their scheduled procedures moved to a facility outside of the city, an official at the briefing said. Half of the surgeries at Brandon Regional Hospital will be postponed.

“Unfortunately, the impact to surgery over the next coming weeks is likely to be very significant,” an official at the technical briefing said.

NDP MLA and health critic Uzoma Asagwara (Union Station) said pre-pandemic cuts to health care by the Pallister government compromised the ability of the system to respond to present demands.

Uzoma Asagwara, health critic for the NDP and MLA for Union Station, accused the Pallister government of ignoring warning signs and failing to prepare for a third wave. (CBC)

“We’re seeing the direct impacts of that decision-making and it’s hurting Manitobans,” they said, adding the province failed to act quickly enough.

“The premier even explained that Manitoba has had more time than other jurisdictions to prepare for this third wave, and yet he and his cabinet failed to do so.”

A variety of other changes are being made to make space for the recent hospitalizations, including diverting some teens 19 and under requiring emergency care to the Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg.  

WATCH | Rising COVID-19 case numbers in Manitoba are ‘alarming,’ Dr. Atwal says:

Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s acting deputy chief public health officer, said Friday rising COVID-19 numbers are alarming and worrying, as the province posted its largest single-day jump in cases since December. 1:34

Since April 20, older high-risk patients in hospital awaiting placement in a personal care home have been identified, and their placements are being expedited.

A virtual outpatient program for COVID-19 patients that’s been running since December is helping free up space in hospitals.

Patients who are sick but healthy enough to be in their homes are monitored remotely, unless their conditions worsen. There are 29 patients currently in this program, with 18 receiving oxygen at home, officials said.

Younger patients

Many patients in hospital are younger than in past waves, and they’re staying longer. The demographic change shows the success of immunization campaigns that prioritized health-care workers and older Manitobans early on, officials said.

Over two-thirds of new coronavirus cases lately have been people under 40, Atwal said. 

Among people in hospital, 40 of the 201 patients on Friday were under age 40, Siragusa said.

The highest number of total COVID-19 hospitalizations on record is 404, on Dec. 16, during the peak of the pandemic’s second wave.

“Staff are tired and the prospect of a third wave … is extremely stressful,’ Siragusa said. “Our plan is limited by the ability to keep our health care workers healthy.”

WATCH | Full news conference on COVID-19 | May 7, 2021:

Provincial officials give update on COVID-19 outbreak: Friday, May 7, 2021. 1:05:01