Manitoba hospitals low on essentials for feeding babies, reading heart rates due to supply chain issues

Nurses say Manitoba’s hospitals are low on critical supplies they use to feed premature babies, deliver intravenous nutrition to sick children and adults, and monitor patients’ vital signs.

Hospitals have been short on some supplies for the past several weeks, a spokesperson for Shared Health has confirmed.

There have been supply chain issues at different points in the pandemic, driven by a number of factors like shortages of raw materials and transportation issues, they wrote.

“Issues with some supplies have been ongoing for the past several weeks and predate the protests at the border,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to CBC News.

But an email to staff at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre sent Monday says the border closures are at least in part to blame.

“As you are aware, supply availability has been reduced due to resource shortages, staffing shortages at manufacturing plants, border closures and highway closures due to inclement weather in Manitoba and Ontario,” the email reads, adding that arrangements are being made to secure more supplies.

This comes as some health-care staff say the scarcity of necessary medical items is further complicating care of patients in a hospital system already under immense strain from nearly two years of the pandemic.

“Everything is just hanging on daily,” one nurse who works in pediatrics said. 

“We are making do with what we have for now, but we obviously can’t do that indefinitely.”

CBC News has agreed not to reveal the identities of the nurses because they fear they could be punished at work for speaking out.

IV feeding supplies low

The nurses say hospitals are running low on items they need to feed sick babies, children and adults through IV. This includes syringes, bottles and feeding tubes.

Hospitals are also low on what they feed patients: baby formula and total parenteral nutrition (TPN) — a specialized mixture of nutrients given through an IV tube.

“It’s not fair for the patients or their families,” one nurse said.

Hospital staff are on the fly trying to decide whether some hospital items normally intended for one use can be sterilized and used again.

Nurses are deciding which items “we consider as a hospital to be acceptable for reuse? While also considering bacterial load and infection risks for vulnerable populations,” she said.

It’s become more common in recent weeks to see rooms of empty boxes, or to open a box full of supplies that are damaged or expired, the nurse said.

Nurses say hospitals are also running low on telemetry paper, a special roll of paper connected to a patient’s monitor. It automatically prints out information if the patient’s heart rate or breathing becomes irregular. (Shutterstock / Chaikom)

Another nurse who works in surgery told CBC News they’re running low on telemetry paper. The rolls of paper are connected to monitors that automatically print out information if the patient’s heart rate or breathing becomes irregular. The papers are used to alert health-care staff if something is wrong.

The nurse said when her unit started to run low on the paper a few days ago, staff tried to borrow it from somewhere else.

“We were told that what we have on the unit was that. There was no more in the hospital,” she said.

“The end of the day came and there were a few rolls left.”

Cleansing swabs and saline flushes are also scarce, the nurses say.

Shared Health says it’s looked at alternate options or supplies, and is monitoring the supply chain to make sure alternatives available and patient care isn’t impacted.

Scarce hospital supplies manufactured in the U.S.

While the province says the shortages started before blockades sprang up at major U.S.- Canada borders, one nurse says her supervisor told her the border blockades were to blame for the lack of supplies.

The company that provides Manitoba hospitals with baby formula, Mead Johnson, has its manufacturing facilities in the United States and Mexico, according to the company’s website. Mead Johnson would not answer CBC’s questions about what is causing delays.

“Mead Johnson has indicated they expect supply of these items to stabilize in the coming weeks,” the provincial spokesperson wrote.

The supplier of the majority of Manitoba’s telemetry paper, Graphic Controls, has four factories all in the United States. CBC’s request for more information from that company was not answered.