Manitoba officials’ comments about unvaccinated COVID-19 ICU patients skew reality, says critical care doctor

A critical care physician is calling out Manitoba officials for making what she calls unfair claims that suggest the province’s intensive care wards are filled with people who have chosen not to get vaccinated.

Local ICUs are in trouble as the pandemic’s third wave thumps Manitoba. This week, Health Minister Heather Stefanson and Dr. Jazz Atwal, Manitoba’s deputy chief provincial public health officer, unveiled statistics that showed most COVID-19 patients in ICU have not been vaccinated against the illness.

Both officials urged people to book their vaccine appointments and follow public health orders.

But Dr. Kendiss Olafson says they’re misrepresenting the situation.

“We are not seeing people who are fully vaccinated in our ICU. But … many of our patients in the ICU are young right now and they have only been eligible for vaccines in the very recent past,” said Olafson.

As of Saturday, there were 74 Manitobans in the ICU due to COVID-19 and seven more who had been transferred to Ontario hospitals.

Stefanson said Thursday roughly 78 per cent of people in intensive care with the illness hadn’t been vaccinated.

The next day, Atwal told reporters only 16 per cent of ICU patients admitted from May 1 to May 16 had received one dose of the vaccine. They had tested positive for the illness within two weeks after getting the shot.

No one admitted to ICU during that period had received two doses of the vaccine, he said.

“What we know right now is that people who have not received the vaccine are more at risk of getting an infection and having a severe outcome,” he said.

Young Manitobans haven’t had time to build immunity

The third wave has disproportionately impacted younger Manitobans, with more now suffering severe outcomes after getting COVID-19.

Of the COVID-19 ICU patients in Manitoba on Saturday, 10 were 40 years old or younger, a Manitoba Shared Health spokesperson said.

But most young Manitobans weren’t allowed to book their first immunization appointment until the last few weeks (though some were eligible earlier by meeting other criteria) and it takes 14 days for the vaccine to build immunity.

General vaccine eligibility opened to Manitobans 40 and older May 7. Younger people had to wait slightly longer to be eligible to book their vaccine appointment. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The notion that those severe outcomes are caused by people not getting vaccinated implies that young Manitobans are delaying immunization or choosing to not to get the jab, Olafson said.

“We haven’t had enough time elapse to allow our whole population to have access to the vaccines and build up immunity,” she said.

Kris Isford, 35, said he got COVID-19 at work days before he could book a vaccination appointment.

“I was ready to go as soon as I could get it,” he said. “The cards got dealt differently.”

Isford is now in the recovery ward at the Brandon Regional Health Centre after spending 12 days in a medically induced coma, not knowing if he was going to wake up.

Kris Isford from Brandon, Man., is now recovering in hospital after spending 12 days in a medically induced coma because of COVID-19. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Isford went from tearing up walls to renovate his home to, on a good day, walking 20 steps. Texting a friend while sitting down is difficult now, he said.

“I’m pretty much relearning life,” Isford said.

“I didn’t break the rules. I followed everything that was required by government, by my employer. My wife and I have got a protocol for when we come home from work.”

ICU needs help

Seven ICU patients were transferred to hospitals in Ontario this week as Manitoba works to free up space in its strained hospitals.

Four more people were slated to ship out Saturday, a Shared Health spokesperson told CBC News.

That’s unprecedented, said Dr. Anand Kumar, an ICU physician and infectious disease specialist in Winnipeg.

“When you get to the point where you have to move people to a different province, that means that we’re literally bursting at the seams,” he said.

Dr. Anand Kumar, an ICU physician and infectious disease specialist, says the situation in Manitoba’s ICUs ‘is political in nature.’ (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

That has consequences, including nurses being forced to care for more patients than usual and pulled to intensive care from other units with only a few weeks of training, Kumar said.

Meanwhile, other experienced ICU nurses are on leave or quit because of stress, he said.

If a hospital’s ICU is full with COVID-19 patients, it may have to pass Manitobans needing non-COVID care to another hospital, he said.

Kumar said it’s a “political” situation stemming from decisions provincial leaders have made. That includes waiting to implement strict lockdowns until case numbers rise to a certain level.

And it could have been prevented, had Manitoba taken an approach similar to the Atlantic provinces, where there’s strict intervention at the first sign of trouble, he said.

“I’m just so sick of the decision-making that allows this to occur,” Kumar said.

On Friday, Premier Brian Pallister called on the federal government to send health workers to Manitoba.

Officials in Ottawa have already agreed to send contact tracers, and said Pallister’s call for critical care nurses and respiratory therapists are expected to be met within days.