Patients suffering, dying while waiting for care as Manitoba hospitals overwhelmed by COVID-19, doctors say

Patients in Manitoba are suffering and dying while waiting for treatment for illnesses not related to COVID-19 because the health system is overwhelmed, a group of doctors said at a news conference Tuesday morning.

Six patients have died while waiting for cardiac surgery, said Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, an intensive care unit physician and cardiac anesthesiologist and one of six Manitoba doctors calling on the provincial government to shut down non-essential businesses and issue a stay-at-home order.

The measures are necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 and ease the burden on hospitals overwhelmed by the number of people critically ill with the coronavirus, the doctors say. 

Even as Manitoba’s ICU capacity has increased 150 per cent, the province has been forced to move patients to hospitals in Ontario to make more room. As of Tuesday, there were 79 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, plus 18 patients who were transferred to hospitals in Ontario.

“These patients are critically ill, they’re younger and younger, and what is tragic and what is heartbreaking for the staff, these patients suffer with their illness alone,” Jacobsohn said.

“Their families aren’t coming to the hospital and the psychological trauma to the patients who survive this, to the families, is just immense. I think we will have an epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder when this is all done.”

WATCH | Patients suffering, dying alone as COVID-19 strains health system, Manitoba doctor says:

Dr. Eric Jacobsohn, an intensive care unit physician and cardiac anesthesiologist, was one of six Manitoba physicians who spoke publicly on Tuesday about the strain on the health-care system due to COVID-19. The doctors said all patients — not just COVID-19 patients — are being impacted in dire ways due to the surge in cases. 0:37

The fact that Manitoba has been forced to move patients out of the province proves that the system has already reached its maximum capacity, and the number of COVID-19 patients needing intensive care is only going to increase in the coming weeks, said intensive care physician Dr. Daniel Roberts.

“As numbers mount, we’re going to be asking more jurisdictions to take our patients, even if the curve levels off. We have got to get it down,” he said.

With COVID-19 patients taking up resources from other areas, the province has had to postpone many other urgent health-care procedures, such as cancer screening and diagnostics.

Delaying treatments not only prolongs the suffering of the patients, but also makes their conditions harder to treat down the road, the doctors say.

Jacobsohn estimates there are around 20,000 patients in Manitoba who have had surgeries deferred, and despite efforts by medical professionals to make sure the most serious procedures are still performed, even those are not being done, he said.

Cancers are progressing without treatment and people with aneurysms are dying at home when their aneurysms burst, he said.

Workplace transmission

Dr. Pam Orr, an infectious disease specialist, said many COVID-19 patients report that they caught the virus at their non-essential workplaces, despite their best efforts to follow public health guidelines.

Although the number of deaths in the third wave has not reached as high as during the second, the number of illnesses is still “tremendous,” she said.

“Many will never be the same again,” said Orr, and the province doesn’t have the rehabilitation resources to treat patients after they recover.

The doctors said they know there are serious financial and psychological implications of a stricter lockdown, but that lives are at risk.

They point to Ontario as an example of a province that is reaping the benefits of imposing stricter measures earlier in its third wave.

A news release from the doctors calls for the province to introduce a mandatory paid sick leave as other provinces have done, instead of a voluntary program.

At the beginning of May, the province announced that employers who do not already pay their workers sick leave will get $600 per employee to cover up to five full days of COVID-19-related sick leave.

The sick leave can be taken for COVID-19 testing, vaccination appointments, vaccination side-effects, self-isolation after a positive test or caring for a loved one in any of those circumstances.

The doctors’ last call to action is for every Manitoban.

They ask every community member to take whatever actions they can to stay safe and to stay home, even if the government doesn’t require it.

WATCH | Manitoba doctor pleads for return to regular care amid COVID-19 wave:

A group of Manitoba doctors made a plea for stronger public health orders on Tuesday, as the health system struggles to care for a rising tide of people sick with COVID-19. One of them was Dr. Christine Peschken, a rheumatologist, who says non-COVID-19 patients are suffering and getting sicker as their care is deferred. 0:55

Manitoba doctors have spent the last year adapting to COVID-19 and deferring treatment, under the hope that the pandemic would be better by now, said Dr. Christine Peschken, a rheumatologist.

“Instead we’ve got the entire health-care system that’s in danger of collapse,” she said.

The health system must get back to providing regular care, or else more patients — not just those with COVID-19 — will suffer and die, she said.

“With the whole health-care system focused on fighting COVID-19, we can’t get them these increasingly urgent procedures, the referrals, the investigations, or the needed hospital-based treatments,” she said. “It has to stop.”