Thunder Bay-area hospitals prepare for up to 20 COVID-19 patients from Manitoba ICUs

Hospitals in northwestern Ontario are getting ready to accept as many as 20 COVID-19 patients from Manitoba’s intensive care units, as a recent spike in patients has put hospital capacity at risk in the prairie province.

The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre already accepted three patients from Manitoba on Wednesday and expects to possibly get up to two more, hospital president and CEO Rhonda Crocker-Ellacott said Thursday.

As of Thursday afternoon, no more patients had been moved from Manitoba to Ontario, a spokesperson for Manitoba Shared Health said in an email.

“We will continue to monitor the situation as it is fluid and subject to change quickly. Our clinical teams remain committed to ensure the best possible care of patients,” the spokesperson said.

Three other facilities in the region — Health Sciences North in Sudbury, the Sault Area Hospital in Sault Ste. Marie and the North Bay Regional Health Centre — are also part of the partnership in Ontario, Crocker-Ellacott said.

On Wednesday, Manitoba Health Minister Heather Stefanson said the “very unfortunate situation” in the province’s intensive care units escalated over the last three days when a large number of COVID-19 patients were moved into critical care, while none were transferred out.

The decision to ship Manitoba patients to Ontario was made to free up immediate bed space temporarily, in case even more patients needed those spots, Stefanson said.

“This has been kind of an extraordinary surge in the last few days,” she said at the Manitoba Legislature. “These are not easy situations. These are not easy decisions that are being made.”

Low COVID-19 cases in region

Crocker-Ellacott said the Ontario hospitals were told they’ll receive Manitoba’s most stable COVID-19 patients who need critical care.

“In northwestern Ontario in particular, we have a very strong relationship with Manitoba,” she said, adding that Manitoba regularly accepts Ontario patient transfers for life or limb procedures.

“We are pleased to be able to have the capacity and capability to support Manitoba.”

Those four large hospitals move patients around and share capacity with each other all the time — the only difference now is that they’re sharing with another province, Crocker-Ellacott said.

The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre has the capacity to care for additional COVID-19 patients from Manitoba. (Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre)

At question period Thursday, Premier Brian Pallister defended the health-care arrangement between the jurisdictions, which stretches back decades. He said nine Ontarians are currently receiving care in Manitoba, compared to three Manitobans now in Thunder Bay.

“ICU capacity is under attack and there is no doubt that we are going to need the support of others to help, including nursing staff that we have hired and nurses that we have redeployed and nurses that we are training right now,” Pallister said.

“We ask Ontario for help, they ask us for help. It’s a long-standing relationship and we’ll keep it going,” he said.

Sending patients to another province is a sign Manitobans cannot trust their own government to care for the sickest among us, NDP Leader Wab Kinew said.

Pallister told a news conference earlier in the day he hasn’t asked the military or other premiers for assistance while  Manitoba’s intensive care units run out of room.

Ask for help, Pallister urges

“At what point would a premier ask for help, if not now?” Kinew asked in question period. “How much worse does it have to get before the premier will put his pride aside and put the best interests of Manitobans first?”

Pallister responded that Manitoba is willing to work with other jurisdictions, as evidenced by the partnership with the North Dakota government to get truckers vaccinated.

In northwestern Ontario, the hospitals’ decision to create capacity for Manitoba was also made partly because of their own low COVID-19 cases, she said.

At the Thunder Bay hospital, for example, there were only nine COVID-19 patients on Thursday, with four in intensive care.

The hospital is currently operating at about 78 per cent capacity overall, and at roughly 65 per cent in its intensive care unit, Crocker-Ellacott said.

That stands in stark contrast to Manitoba’s 291 coronavirus-related hospitalizations reported the same day, including 76 in intensive care. Nine of those patients are under age 40, the Shared Health spokesperson said.

Of the COVID-19 patients in hospital, 232 hospitalized still had active cases of the illness, as did 56 in intensive care. Those numbers don’t include patients transferred out of province, the spokesperson said.

Manitoba’s pre-pandemic intensive care baseline for its critical care program was 72 patients. As of midnight Thursday, there were a total of 125 patients in critical care, the spokesperson said.